'It feels horrible to be at school... we didn't want to see the empty seats'

Tentatively, they started to make their way back yesterday. From around Matara, the pupils of Sujatha Vidiyala school trickled into the classrooms. But lessons will never be the same again. In one room, where an English lesson should have been given to 40 people, there were just nine pupils. No one knows how many are missing and how many just didn't have the appetite to come back.

Tentatively, they started to make their way back yesterday. From around Matara, the pupils of Sujatha Vidiyala school trickled into the classrooms. But lessons will never be the same again. In one room, where an English lesson should have been given to 40 people, there were just nine pupils. No one knows how many are missing and how many just didn't have the appetite to come back.

One who did respond to television and radio announcements urging them to return was 17-year-old Samitha Ruwanthia. She carried a photograph of her best friend and classmate, Purmina Hansani. Purmina will not be coming back to school this year.

The sombre atmosphere collapsed into a tearful one as the class of girls remembered Purmina. "She was a very kind-hearted person, always helping other people. She loved school and was a wonderful dancer. She was so beautiful," said Samitha, wiping away the tears with a white handkerchief.

Just two schools in the southern Matara area of Sri Lanka opened yesterday. The other 10 are still being used as refugee centres. But across the country teachers took registers. No one was in the mood for lessons. At Sujatha Vidiyala there were 250 pupils. As the principal, Chandra Pinidiya, called out the register at 9am, fewer than 70 answered "here". Teachers suspect more than 40 may be dead.

And those who have survived do so with painful scars. Among them was the smiling Desha Kalnpahana, who said she was eager to start learning again. Yet Desha begins the new year in a new home with a new family. For on 26 December, the tsunami that ravaged this tropical paradise claiming more than 30,000 lives washed away her father, mother and grandparents. Along with a brother and sister, Desha survives, and has moved in with her aunt.

"I am not afraid, I just want to study, be with my friends and get on with my life," Desha bravely declared yesterday.

The girls sat together on wooden desks, hugged each other from time to time, cried intermittently. They know the new term will be like no other.

"There can be no teaching right now," added Samitha. "We are still in shock. It feels horrible to be here and we were afraid to come, but I think it is the right thing to do. We didn't want to see empty seats that were filled by our friends - they can't be filled."

And it is not just pupils who will not return. Mrs Pinidiya revealed that at least one of her colleagues, a domestic science teacher, was dead. Coming days would reveal exactly how hard this school has been hit. "The place feels very different than it did before," said Mrs Pinidiya. "I have been talking to all the children and hearing their stories and I think it is best that they come back. We must try to get some normality back."

For the girls of class 3C, that is going to be a difficult task. "The school's totally changed," said Sankhitha Gunaratne, 17. "But people's attitudes have changed," she added as wind blew through the windows that are permanently open to the elements. "We now realise there are so many things we wailed about before that seem irrelevant now.

"One thing that has come out of this is that people are helping each other, people are getting closer. But we have paid a high price for this."

As the teacher explained to the girls of the English class, that they could go home in the afternoon, they expressed fears of further waves and a storm said to be brewing off the coast. These are a people still living on frayed nerves, frightened about what is to come. But Mrs Pinidiya, was preparing to go back on local radio again last night to try to get more of her children back. "The schools can lead the way in lifting this country. It is very difficult, but we can help the ones who have lost loved ones and homes. By coming back, we can all move forward."

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