The floor is filthy, so the refugees sleep on the desks

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The Independent Online

Faces loom out of the shadows. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, but gradually you can make out that it is a classroom. It is packed with people. They sit or lie on every inch of wooden desk space. Entire families sit xon two small desks jammed together. They sleep on the desks because the floor is too filthy to lie on. There must be 50 people crowded in this small room.

Faces loom out of the shadows. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, but gradually you can make out that it is a classroom. It is packed with people. They sit or lie on every inch of wooden desk space. Entire families sit xon two small desks jammed together. They sleep on the desks because the floor is too filthy to lie on. There must be 50 people crowded in this small room.

It is like a scene from a mediaeval painting of hell. Tortured faces appear out of the gloom, eyes wracked with grief. Beseeching hands are outstretched towards you. In the corner a young woman kneels precariously on a tiny sliver of a desk, carefully combing out her hair for the night, trying to preserve a scrap of human dignity.

The air is thick with alcohol fumes. The men have been drinking to forget, and the tension is palpable.

These are the survivors of the tsunami, their houses and all their possessions destroyed, living crowded hopelessly together in a secondary school in Nagapattinam that must be a breeding ground for disease. There are more than 1,000 survivors here, and they have just four lavatories.

In Classroom IV - one where the lights have not given out - Rangarajan lies helpless on a dirty old blanket. The 67-year-old is clearly unwell; there is a sickly colour to his skin and his movements are slow and confused.

He has suffered two heart attacks since the tsunami. He was discharged from hospital after just five days, and his wife, Sarasati, 57, is distraught.

"He was running so hard to get away from the tsunami, he had to go so fast to escape, and he has a weak heart," she says. "After he escaped he had the first heart attack. He was in hospital but the doctors told him to go home." But Rangarajan has no home. His corner of this desperately crowded classroom is all he has, and the other refugees give him a little space, walk quietly around his makeshift bed.

"The doctors gave him pills, and one sees him here every day. But he is not getting any better," Sarasati says. She stands with the palms of her hands pressed together, pleading in her eyes. It is obvious her husband is far too sick to be in this room.

Also in the classroom are four orphaned brothers and sisters. Their parents died in the tsunami. The youngest, Thunevan, 9, and Rajalakshmi, 7, are asleep on a mat on the floor. They and their 12-year-old brother Ayupa have been told their parents have just gone away for a few days, and will be back soon. Only the 15-year-old, Tawarani, knows the truth.

In the next classroom, Jaya, a harried-looking mother, complains of the conditions. "There is nowhere for us to wash," she says.

The only place is in front of everyone else, and in India's traditional society that means women will not wash. But the temperature hits 30C daily.

Still, most insist that this is one of the best shelters in town. "At least it is safe and we have a roof over our heads," says Sivanyanam, a middle-aged man. At many of the other shelters, survivors sleep in the open in the courtyards of Hindu temples.

"We have to move out of here tomorrow, and none of us are happy about it," Sivanyanam says. "Tomorrow the school term starts, so they are moving us somewhere else. This is a good place for us."

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