Tsunami orphans face new life

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 10:30 p.m.
NAGAPPATINAM, India - A little boy stands barefoot in the dirt. He doesn't know how old he is. No one issued a birth certificate or wrote down the date when he arrived in this world; such details are not recorded in the fishing villages along this southern coast of India.
His mother died in last month's tsunami. Then his father brought him to this temporary orphanage in a house behind the Mount Zion church on the busy Nagore-Nagappatinam Road. Kumar, like many in this country, has only one name.
Now he has only one parent, whom he has not seen since being left here. There are many things Kumar doesn't know; among them is how long he has been at this place, and where his father has gone. "He doesn't come to visit," says the child, who looks about 6, and speaks in a small, soft voice. "He promised to come back and get me."
His father may never come. Since Dec. 26 - when a monstrous tsunami devastated the coastline and claimed nearly 11,000 Indian lives, more than half here in the state of Tamil Nadu - an unknown number of motherless children have been surrendered to orphanages like this one by overwhelmed fathers who've lost their wives and their boats and have no way to make a living.
Children who've lost both parents also have been handed over by aunts and uncles or distant relatives who say they are too poor to take on another mouth to feed. It is especially hard for girls, who are seen as less valuable, and carry the additional burden of needing a sizable dowry before marriage, which is about the only future they can really hope for.
There are 99 children crammed into this small house donated for now by the church next door. Nearly half have lost both parents. The government has sent a warden from another state orphanage to oversee their care. It is a temporary measure. If no one claims these youngsters, who range from toddlers to fifth-graders, they will be placed permanently in a government-run facility, separated by age and gender.
More than four weeks after the tsunami, none have been claimed.
"Even if their relatives had the money to care for them, they don't wish it," says the warden, P. Rajeswari.
"The families may have up to eight children of their own. Taking these children would be too much."
Still, the relatives have not taken the final step of signing away their familial rights, which would allow the children to be put up for adoption. The government has awarded 100,000 rupees (about $2,300) per dead parent to each child, collectible on their 18th birthday. To poor and often illiterate fishing families here, this is a great deal of money, and a possible incentive for not cutting ties to these children.
Even in normal times, it is not uncommon for poor, single parents to relinquish the care of their children to other relatives or to the government, which is viewed here with equal amounts of distrust and dependence.
"The government will feed them and take care of them and give them clothes and schooling," said Rajeswari. "They will be taken care of."
This is little comfort to the children in this house, especially the older ones, who have a clearer grasp of their new reality than the smaller ones do. They sleep upstairs on a tile floor; the only furnishings are some donated suitcases and a few pieces of clothing. On a hot afternoon, Naveena, who is 9, has sought solitude here and sits silently crying. On the steps outside, a 13-year-old girl lies curled in a ball, not speaking and acknowledging no one.
Downstairs, on a concrete slab under an awning that gives blessed shade from the searing sun, the younger children run amok, barefoot and dirty, poking and yelling and laughing; chasing each other in circles. Among them, Jayashri is an impish, gorgeous child in a pink dress, whose soulful eyes convey what her limited vocabulary cannot. She is not yet 3.
They know their mothers and fathers are dead, but these are words that have no lasting meaning yet. Thankfully, for now, they are oblivious to the institutional lives that await them.
Ramakrishmen is 10. His uncle brought him here with his 9-year-old brother, Jairam. The boys lost both parents, their grandmother, and two sisters in the tsunami. The uncle has kept their 15-year-old brother, and placed their 13-year-old sister in another orphanage.
"My house was on the seashore and it was completely destroyed," says Ramakrishmen, who stands with his arm firmly around the shoulders of his best friend from their nearby fishing village. His little brother silently watches and says not a word.
Ramakrishmen says he doesn't understand why he is here. Sometimes, his uncle comes to visit. "He tells us to stay here and study and become a responsible person," the boy says solemnly. His brother nods, as if to confirm this is true.
Asked if they would like to be adopted by another family, the brothers shake their heads in unison. "No. No. No," they chorus.
Then Ramakrishmen is asked if he thinks his uncle will come for him anytime soon.
"No," he replies. "He tells me to stay here and study."
The boy says he is happy here, with his friends and his brother. There are many children to play with and food to eat.
"I will stay here until my uncle calls me," he says. "He is a good man. He wants what is best for us."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top