Destitution looms in the town of orphans

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The Independent Online

Revathi is alone in the world. Just 10 days ago she had a happy family home and loving parents. That is all gone now, wiped away in the space of a few minutes. Both her parents were killed. The family home, with all its memories of her short life, wiped off the face of the earth. Now the best she can hope for is a place in one of India's thousands of orphanages, a desperate struggle to scrape by an existence, utterly depending on the charity of others, a life shattered.

Revathi is alone in the world. Just 10 days ago she had a happy family home and loving parents. That is all gone now, wiped away in the space of a few minutes. Both her parents were killed. The family home, with all its memories of her short life, wiped off the face of the earth. Now the best she can hope for is a place in one of India's thousands of orphanages, a desperate struggle to scrape by an existence, utterly depending on the charity of others, a life shattered.

Nagapattinam is a town of orphans now. You can't spend even an hour amid the ruins here without finding them. It seems every child you meet lost at least one parent on the day they call Black Sunday here.

Revathi emerged from among the ruined alleyways of Thuney Thurai district, where wooden fishing boats lie on top of the rubble of the houses and the smell of the dead bodies makes it hard to breathe. A pretty little girl with ribbons in her hair.

"I was playing at home with my brother when the wave came," she says. "Mum and dad were at the beach waiting for the boats to come in, they used to help bring in the fish. Then the neighbour came in, she said, 'There's a flood coming' and grabbed my brother and me and took us out of the house. We climbed on the roof of a house, where we were safe."

Down on the beach, her mother and father were killed almost instantly, but Revathi did not know that. "The neighbour told me after two or three days," she says.

"She told me my parents were dead and that they had already been buried, and that I could not see them."

Revathi tells me her parents' names as if they are something precious to her. Her father was Segar. He was 32. Her mother was Antamma. She was 28.

She avoids eye contact and often seems on the verge of tears but she does not cry. Her forehead is knotted in a frown, as if she were trying to puzzle out why these terrible things have happened to her. Since the disaster, she has been staying with her aunt, along with her 13-year-old brother, Selvaraj. But her aunt's family is poor. "We cannot afford to take them in permanently," says the aunt. "It's two more mouths to feed."

Long after the global media coverage has ended, and the vast aid donations flowing in have dried up, the orphans will still be here. Revathi will depend on charity for years if she is to avoid slipping into the destitution so many Indian orphans end up in, living on the streets.

Her aunt has brought her to meet John Arul, a Christian pastor and NGO worker. The charity he works for, Love and Care India, runs an orphanage and he hands Revathi a brightly coloured brochure. She turns it over and over in her fingers, glancing from time to time at the picture of smiling children.

"I can't take her today, she will need time to adjust emotionally to what has happened," says Mr Arul.

"I just got back from a trip out of town a few hours ago, and since then we've found 15 orphans this morning alone. We have only been working in Thuney Thurai so far and we have found more than 100. When you consider the total area affected here, that must mean thousands of orphans across Nagapattinam district."

More than 6,000 have been confirmed dead in Nagapattinam, with thousands more missing. Not only the town itself, but 395 surrounding villages have been devastated. In all of them there will be orphans.

In the Nahore area of Nagapattinam town, the secondary school is full of orphans. Of the 5,000 or so survivors housed here in a makeshift refugee camp, 3,000 are children, and 40 of those have lost both parents.

Children like Vijaya Kumari, 12. She is smiling and laughing, as if her mind refuses to register the shock of what happened, that her parents are gone forever. She ran when she heard the tsunami - "a sound like helicopters" is how she describes it.

They are dotted around the town in different camps, some at neighbours' or relatives' houses. Their futures will be the real test of whether the world takes care of the victims of this catastrophe. They are the orphans of the tsunami.

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