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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 January, 2005, 00:06 GMT
Tsunami schools seek fresh start
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent, in Bangkok

English lesson at Baan Nam Khem school
Students have trouble concentrating
From the window of the school in Baan Nam Khem students can see a large fishing boat.

But it is not in the sea: the tsunami picked it up and tossed it inland, where it sits forlornly wedged against a house.

The giant wave wreaked havoc on the school itself. About half the buildings were destroyed.

The water rushed from the sea, destroying 395 houses in this fishing village, stopping only after rising three metres up the walls of the classrooms.

Stranded fishing boat
A stranded ship is a reminder of the force of the waves
It was a Sunday when the tsunami struck so the school was empty. Otherwise the death toll of students at this 413-pupil school would have been higher.

As it was, 15 students died and 12 are still missing. Some of the survivors became orphans that day: five lost both parents, 23 lost a mother or a father.

Remarkably, considering the devastation around it, the school re-opened nine days later.

Temporary classrooms have been erected and a French supermarket chain is paying for some new buildings.

But there is a bigger task than getting new buildings, equipment and books: overcoming the psychological effects of the trauma the children have been through.

Panic

Although the school is now back on an 80% timetable, the principal, Tawich Jitprasan, says "the students are not yet ready for learning".

Counselling is being offered to them all but Mr Jitprasan says: "Young children and teenagers are still in a panic: if someone says the water is coming they will run."

Like most rural schools in this area, this is a combined primary and secondary school.

If someone says the water is coming they will run
Tawich Jitprasan
school principal
National examinations for older pupils were due on 19 January, but tsunami-affected schools were exempted.

But how long will it be before they are really ready to pick up again where they left off?

The Phang Nga province was the worst affected part of Thailand. Of the national death toll of 5,384, over 4,000 were from here. A further 1,800 or more are still missing.

A few miles down the coast, the Tub La Mu school was almost entirely destroyed. Only the school library survived, the classroom blocks are now condemned and the canteen roof is unsafe.

Temporary shelters have been erected and classes do, at least, go through the motions of normality.

But the acting principal, Sirikarn Roteboontueng, says that when the pupils returned it "seemed like the children had lost their memories, all their knowledge had gone, we had to start at zero again, they were so nervous and panicky".

Nightmares

Like all the schools I visited, the infrastructure was being restored, thanks to a combination of government and charitable monies.

Tub La Mu school in ruins
Tub La Mu school was left in ruins
All had plenty of outside help with counsellors and charity agency staff in the schools. But after they have gone, the children will still have their nightmares and fears.

At Bann Bang Sak school, which was completely washed away, 12-year-old Boonlong Klatalay told me he had seen the waters coming over his school and he now worried that the tsunami would come again.

His school is now being rebuilt but further up the hill, just beyond the point the waves reached this time. The school will even have a new name, after the king of Thailand's charity project which is funding it.

Although Thailand's government has rejected foreign government aid, and has moved quickly to rebuild schools and homes, charitable donations have helped to make a difference here.

School aid

This week a group of London head teachers, in Bangkok on a British Council visit to promote school leadership, handed over a cheque for over 20,000.

The bulk of this came from primary schools in Hillingdon where children had responded spontaneously, bringing in their own items to sell. One child brought in the entire contents of his money box.

The head teacher of Grange primary school in Southwark, Mrs Haynes, handed Thailand's deputy education minister a cheque for 625, an impressive amount for a school in one of the poorer parts of London where fund-raising events normally bring in only a fraction of that.

Grange head presents cheque to Thai education vice-minister
Grange head presents cheque to Thai education vice-minister
But even with the new buildings, books and equipment being provided for the tsunami-affected schools, the students' mental scars will remain.

Back at Baan Nam Khem school, a foreign volunteer was taking an English class. Normally in Thailand, pupils are attentive and obedient.

Here the students were restless and disengaged. Most unusually, the teacher had to wait for calm and order to return.

It is hardly surprising: this fishing village has lost its livelihood, bodies are still missing, twisted-metal and clothes lie in heaps by the roadside, and the children return home to tiny wooden, temporary shelters.

The classrooms may be filling up again, but it will be a long time before anything like normality returns for these children.




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