Cases of child abuse emerge from camps

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The Independent Online

Having climbed to higher ground as the wave pounded in, Madusha Lakmali thought everything would be all right. Little did she know that evading the tsunami was just the start of her terrifying, week-long ordeal. Next came homelessness, rejection and then sexual abuse.

Having climbed to higher ground as the wave pounded in, Madusha Lakmali thought everything would be all right. Little did she know that evading the tsunami was just the start of her terrifying, week-long ordeal. Next came homelessness, rejection and then sexual abuse.

Across the Asian tsunami disaster zone, many displaced children and orphans who have survived the turmoil now face the chilling prospect of abduction and exploitation.

There are already credible reports of rape and of children going missing after the tsunami struck. From Sumatra to Madras, the fear is that Asia's vulnerable are now more exposed to predatory sex offenders and people-smugglers than ever before.

The account of 15-year-old Madusha illustrates how chaos that follows disaster can be every bit as petrifying and heartbreaking as living through the onslaught of a tsunami.

In the gardens of the Ruhlwa Lamaniwasao home for abused children, half an hour's drive inland from the shattered town of Galle, Madusha played on the swings with two other recent arrivals. All three had terrible stories to tell.

Ever since her mother moved abroad and her father remarried, said Madusha, she had been forced to cook, clean and care for her younger step-sisters. When the wave came she was at the stove. She fled the house, running to higher ground and what seemed like safety.

At first she thought her family was dead. Later in the day she was first delighted to discover them alive, then shocked to be told, she says, that they did not want her back in the damaged house.

So, homeless, she made for her grandfather's home. Within hours, however, predatory advances were made on her. As she described this part of her ordeal Madusha broke down, prompting Dr Sujeewa Amarasena to comfort her.

Dr Amarasena has been looking after children displaced by last week's tsunami and trying to find them new homes. "This girl has had a petrifying experience and needs love and care now," Dr Amarasena said. "She wants to go back to school and it is important we find a good family in this area to look after her."

Iranganie Amarasiri, probation commissioner for the southern province that includes Galle, nodded in agreement as other children looked on. She explained that 16 children were without homes in the area as a result of the tsunami. She also expressed concern that those orphaned or left with just one parent could be abducted or subjected to sexual abuse.

While most Sri Lankan orphans have been taken in by family members or friends living in unaffected parts of the country, that does not guarantee their safety.

Along with Madusha in the Rhulwa home were two sisters, Ayesha and Nelum Keditawakku. They had been travelling with their grandfather when the tsunami toppled their carriage. Their parents moved abroad and abandoned them and 12-year-old Ayesha had subsequently been sexually abused.

Their grandfather also survived the wave, but fled north without the girls, leaving them to seek refuge in a temple. They were subsequently brought to safety here. "Again these are girls who survived a terrifying time and are now without a family to look after them. The future is uncertain and they are scared because of what happened before," Mrs Amarasiri said.

Save the Children is operating in the Galle area and throughout the disaster region to ensure as many children as possible escape the risk of abduction or abuse. Beth Jepson, of Save the Children, said: "Millions of children have been affected by the catastrophe and many of them have been separated from their families and have been left homeless. In a situation like this, children are the most vulnerable, particularly those without their parents or close family members."

In Aceh, meanwhile, where 35,000 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents, Indonesian officials warned that child traffickers were smuggling children out the province for illegal adoption.

It is claimed that at least 20 orphans were sent to Malaysia and Bandung in West Java by traffickers posing as adoption foundations. Another foundation, it is claimed, has offered Acehnese orphans to potential foster parents via text messages. On Monday, the Indonesian Government issued a regulation banning the movement of Acehnese children under 16 from Indonesia .

Sri Lankan authorities, meanwhile are also trying to deal with what has been described as impromptu adoption of orphans. A spokeswoman for Save the Children in Sri Lanka said: "Families doing this are trying to deal with their own grief. We are advising people that they should follow the proper procedure of adoption ... otherwise there will be long-term problems."

Unicef has been swamped with inquires from the West about adopting tsunami children, but it remains a priority to keep them in the area they lived before disaster struck.

In the case of Madusha Lakmali that means southern Sri Lanka. "I want to finish school," she told The Independent. "If I can learn English and finish school, I will be happy and maybe forget about the last week."

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