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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 January, 2005, 08:43 GMT
Sri Lankans struggle with new trauma

Children and adults already scarred by Sri Lanka's civil war are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones in the Asian tsunami. The BBC's Frances Harrison reports from Mullaitivu, in territory held by the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north-east.


"We only recovered the body of my elder sister, not my two younger sisters," says Anthony David.

He was lucky to survive - compelled to go to work at the age of 13 to support his family, he was travelling back home to visit his mother on Boxing Day when the tsunami struck.

Ruined Mullaitivu
Mullaitivu has become like a ghost town since the tsunami
He saw nine fishermen swept away and then watched helplessly as two men clinging to a coconut tree died as the tree smashed to the ground - all the time fearing his own family was dead.

Anthony David's mother did survive but he has not seen her because she was sent to Jaffna Hospital for treatment in government territory.

But this is not the first tragedy Anthony David has known. When he was five his father, a fisherman, set out to sea one night and never returned. He was shot by the Sri Lankan navy.

'The worst thing'

Like everyone else here, Anthony David has suffered the double tragedy of war and the tsunami. "Yes I have been through the war but this is worse," he says, "the army didn't kill everyone but the sea has wiped everybody out."

Sister Selvi
This is the worst thing that happened for our people
Sister Selvi, counsellor
Anthony David is part of a group of children in a welfare camp being counselled by Catholic nun Sister Selvi.

"When I listen to them... I feel like crying," she says. "I also think more than the war these waves have washed many people. This is the worst thing that happened for our people."

Sister Selvi listens to small children recounting stories of dead bodies in a matter of fact way.

Five-year-old Jerome gives a long and garbled account of how he survived the tsunami by holding on to a mango tree. He describes how the body of his brother Robin was brought on the back of a tractor and how it was badly decomposed. Something no five-year-old should see.

His friend Anthony Seeha says there is no way he is going back to the sea even though his father is a fisherman. "One day we will go and visit our home and see the area and then return to the camp," he says. Asked why, he says "what will we do if the sea comes again?"

Catholic priests organising the counselling say already some children are very silent. Others are enjoying having their friends to play with in the camp but when they go back home the problems may set in because dead siblings and friends will be really missed then.

'Like a dream'

Already counsellors are dealing with several men who want to commit suicide or are resorting to alcohol to deaden their pain. Thirty-year-old Anton lies on a bed - he was injured in the back but it is his mental anguish that is most noticeable. He has trouble talking - the words just do not seem to come out normally.

Child survivors in a relief camp in Mullaitivu
Children saw things they should never have seen
He used to transport fish and was doing his accounts at home when the tsunami struck. "I can't describe it - it was just like a dream," he says describing the advancing wave as like a cloud of black smoke.

He grabbed his children and started to run but they were dragged out to sea while he clung to a tree. Anton's children were five years old, three years old and a baby of just 14 days.

"The children used to sit on my lap and say daddy daddy daddy; they would ask me to get things for them," he says breaking down in tears. Anton also lost his wife, his father, a brother and a sister. Only two of the bodies were ever recovered.

Elsewhere in the camp, 25-year-old Vinsi is glued to a crackly Tamil radio station broadcasting from the capital. Her nine-year-old daughter is missing and a relative told her he heard on the radio she was alive but somewhere in a government-controlled town.

"My husband also died so I have to get back my child," she says, unable to travel so far on her own to a place she doesn't know - especially now that all her identity documents are lost in the tsunami.

Vinsi says she is sure her daughter Mary is alive - she saw her in a dream. We use a satellite telephone to contact the hospital where Vinsi thinks her daughter was taken. They have no record of her but she does not give up hope.


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