As tragedy struck on December 26, 2004, hundreds of children lost their homes, parents and familiar way of life. How are they doing now? The writer visits Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari to find out

Indumathi was 12 when the tsunami struck. Her mother urged her to run when the water rose. As she fled, her mother went to check if her father was safe. (He was, but she did not know it). Today, Indumathi lives in Tsunami Nagar in Thazhankuda, about 4 kms from the heart of Cuddalore, where NGOs constructed 500 new houses for fishermen on land provided by the Government. She recalls, “The second wave took amma away. I was sent to the Government hostel. Later, I moved in with my brother and sister-in-law. I studied at the Government Higher Secondary School.” She is doing an undergraduate course in Bio-Chemistry and wants to get a B.Tech degree later.

***

Eight years have gone by. Eight years in which the children of the tsunami have slowly managed to knit together the broken pieces of their lives, recovering from the trauma, the grief, the loss. When the tsunami struck, I had visited some of the affected areas and interviewed many survivors, many of them children like Indumathi. Today, all these years later, I wonder what happened to them. Only by revisiting these places, these children would I have the answers.

I go first to the Government Special Children’s Home (Tsunami), Cuddalore, which came up in 2007, through actor Vivek Oberoi’s and Swami Chidananda Saraswati’s Project Hope. When the tsunami struck, this structure did not exist. Seventy three children, orphaned or having lost one parent, were brought to a different house rented by the Government (which decided to take sole charge of the children affected by the tsunami). 

R. Bhuvaneshwari, District Social Welfare Officer, says, “The boys reside in the home till they are 14. They are then sent to their guardians or to a general hostel. And many of the girls are married now.”

Vasanthi, Suganthi,  Hema, Vedanayagi — she reels off their names.  Some of the boys, former residents of the home, are in school while others are in college; like Nivas, who is in a post-graduate course. And some others are employed. Twenty eight girls and two boys now reside in the Government Special Children’s Home (Tsunami). Their guardians visit them once or twice a month. An overwhelming number of NGOs came here to help the children soon after the tsunami struck. Donors brought gifts and counselling was provided as well.  Even today, there are people determined to help the children, and donors bring gifts on festival days. Everyone remembers Roger Federer’s visit to the home in 2006.

I meet Abhinaya, the youngest in the home, once again. The last time I saw her, she was an infant. Abhinaya was a nine-month-old baby when her grandmother brought her here. The child’s mother had been swept away by the waves. “The grandmother was too old to look after Abhinaya but continues to visit her weekly,” says Bhuvaneshwari.

We step out of her office and meet sixteen-year-old Sivapriya, whose eyes reflect her pain. “My mother died and my father married again,” says the Class X student. (The majority of widowers have remarried, unlike the widowed women.)

K. Nagendran, Superintendent of the Government Orphanage, stands respectfully beside Bhuvaneshwari. “Initially the children often broke down,” he says. “Though the tragedy left a wound in their heart, they have now slowly gotten over it.”

Saranya, another child who lives here, talks of how her father had gone fishing when the tsunami struck. “My mother supports us by selling fish. Both my sister and I live here. My sister is studying in Class XI while I am in the first year of college.” Four orphaned sisters, standing near her, chorus, “This is our home and family.” Those who have left the home are in touch with their wardens and teachers. Vedanayagi is training to be a beautician in Chennai, Yezhachi works in a juice shop, Hema has completed her nursing course and Ravi is employed in Chennai… 

The NGOs have left. Only a few remain. Among them is the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW), Tamil Nadu, and Centre for Rural Education and Economic Development (CREED). Andal Damodaran, Vice-President, ICCW-Tamil Nadu, says, “We had the support of the Government and were able to accomplish quite a bit. We are continuing tsunami relief work in Cuddalore and Kanyakumari with the support of an Italian organisation. Many children are now in their adolescence and have gotten over the trauma. The ICCW sponsors those who were orphaned or lost a parent. We believe in kinship care; it is best that children stay with their families. We had to do a great deal of counselling to the affected children but we now concentrate on rescue through Childline, run by ICCW.”

The ICCW has adopted 15 villages in Cuddalore district. It provides education and medical support and monitors the childrens’ well-being and progress through regular home and school visits. “We undertake career guidance in schools and conduct medical check ups as well as community-based rehabilitation. We have helped the District Social Officer prevent a number of cases where girls were being forced into marriage,” says Damodaran.

“We rescued a girl being tortured by her stepmother and a boy who was forced to clean fish in the market three years ago. Both were orphans,” say Rajesh Khanna, Project Coordinator of Childline in Cuddalore, and Yasoda, Project Coordinator for the Tsunami Programme, ICCW. Another recent case involved attempted child marriage. A 14-year-old girl in Ucchimedu studying in Std.VIII was being coerced by her uncle to marry him. “Her grandmother complained to us. We stopped the marriage and enabled her to continue her education.”

I set out next for Samiyarpettai, a fishing village 24 km from Cuddalore. Here, on the seashore, a plaque listing the names and ages of the dead stands as a memorial: 26 people died; 21 women, four children and a man.  I come across moving stories — a girl who helped look after her four younger siblings after their mother died; and, in Singarathope, an aunt who has remained single to care for her nephew after her sister was swept away.

***

At Nagapattinam, the district worst affected by the tsunami, I meet M. Girija, a teacher at the Annai Sathya Illam. She shows me a picture. “We took the children to Poompuhar this year,” she says. In the photograph, taken a couple of months ago, smiling youngsters are on the beach. The sky above is a clear blue. And the sea? The sea is at peace, gentle waves fringing its vast expanse. The youngsters, standing confidently on the sand, are survivors. They were once petrified of the water. They had nightmares remembering the sight of waves “as tall as coconut trees” that swept in and swallowed their homes and their loved ones. Says Girija, “They enjoyed themselves playing in the waves. The trip marked their recovery.”

The Annai Sathya Illam set up for tsunami-affected children was sponsored by various agencies from Chennai, the U.S. and Australia. Of the 31 children there now, four are in college while the rest are in school. “When they first came, the children would mope for hours sitting under the trees in the compound,” says Girija, who has been teaching here since December 2004. They would cry inconsolably on Tsunami Remembrance Day. Music, dance and cricket helped take their minds away from the tragedy, as did NGO and counsellor visits. Now they are quite cheerful.” Of the 99 children who were brought here soon after the tragedy, many were taken away by relatives as soon as the government announced the payment of relief money. Two girls, though, were never claimed. Found on the beach as babies, Meena and Sowmya have no certificates and have not received any relief money. “It was not possible to trace their relatives. While the other children are visited by relatives, no one ever comes to see these two. It will be good if someone comes forward to sponsor them,” says Girija.

Within the premises, Lavanya and Shakila, who are in college, are struggling with English lessons. “It would help if spoken English classes were conducted,” they tell me. An official proudly informs me about Thamizharasi, one of their success stories, who completed her MBA and works now for an MNC.

The boys are permitted to stay in the home till they are 14. Then, if their guardians do not claim them, they are sent to the SOS village in Nagapattinam. At the SOS village, Shirni, Senior Co-worker (Educational), takes me to meet 12-year-old Vaigaidevan who came from the home. She tells me that Vaigaidevan and his brother Asaithambi have overcome their problems. “They don’t talk much about the tragedy. They were school dropouts but have made up for lost time.” Vaigaidevan excels in sports and is proud of his SOS family, consisting of the mother (who takes care of 10 orphaned children) and their house.

***

My last stop is Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district. As I near Manakudi, 15 km away, I see the remains of the bridge that was swept away. In Melamanakudi village, Anthony Das is seated outside his newly constructed house, which is painted a bright purple. It is part of the group of houses constructed by Kottar Social Service Society (KSSSS) and Caritas Switzerland. “The Sirumalar Uyar Nilai Palli (Little Flower High School) has made a huge difference to education in this area after the tsunami,” he says. Fishermen are now keen to educate their children and facilities for education have improved. Girls are being encouraged to study.

At the school, curious young eyes follow me as I make my way to the principal’s room. The building, an impressive structure, was constructed by Caritas. I meet Arulselvi (name changed), one of the girls who still seems shell-shocked. “When the waves came, amma held my hand. She pleaded with a man to save us, but he did not listen,” she recalls with a distant look. “Amma was carried away while I escaped. Appa has remarried.” Her unhappiness is clear and the principal agrees that she needs counselling.

In Kanyakumari, the church has played a major role in rehabilitating the victims. “The fishermen here implicitly obey the church,” I am told. “Many children died during the tsunami since they were not able cross the canal in the nearby village — 90 children were washed way — while the older people swam to safety,” says Father Michael Angelus, Executive Director of KSSS. On the way to Colachel, I see the canal; the water flows quietly. It looks deceptively safe. A memorial arch “beneath which hundreds of victims are buried” stands near the church. 

At Kottilpadu, Father Felix Alexander, the parish priest, is addressing a gathering of women— old women barely able to walk, middle-aged women with faces lined by struggle, young women prematurely burdened with the responsibility of raising children who lost their parents in the tsunami.

A different scene greets me on my return to Nagercoil town. The Government Home has been closed. “The children wanted fish and freedom, so many of them went back to their relatives,” says Uma Maheshwari, former District Social Welfare Officer, over the phone. “There were just 16 left and so we merged the home with the one in Tirunelveli. But we are in touch with the children.”

***

At Cuddalore, counsellor Subbian talks of how the fear has come down substantially, especially among the boys. Except for brief intervals when towering waves bring back the nightmare, the majority of the children have moved on. The tsunami is a memory that no longer tears their life apart. It is an ache that comes and goes. 

“The children affected by the tsunami are dhairyasali (brave ones),” says Girija with pride. “They don’t flinch. They don’t give up. They have a special brand of courage. And this quality is sure to help them make their way through life.”

Many of the boys are working; some have gone back to the sea as fishermen.  A few of the girls are married and now have children of their own. Life goes on. 

Factfile

Of the (then) 30 districts in Tamil Nadu, 13 coastal districts bore the brunt of the tsunami. A total of 7995 lives were lost.  Low-lying Nagapattinam was the worst affected district, followed by Kanyakumari and Cuddalore.

Nagapattinam

Akkaraipettai, Keechankuppam, Aryanaatutheru, Nagoor, Nambiyanagar, Vellankanni and Siruthur were among the worst-affected areas

1766 children died

222 children were orphaned

872 lost one parent

Cuddalore

Devanampattinam, Thazhankuda, Sonankuppam, Singarapettai and Akkaraigori were among the worst-affected areas

214 children died

21 children were orphaned

137 lost one parent

Kanyakumari

Kottilpadu, Colachel, Melamanakudi and Keelamanakudi were among the worst-affected areas

378 children died

7 children were orphaned

45 lost one parent

(Data collected from government officials in these districts when the tsunami struck.)