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In morgues, too many children

UNICEF estimates that at least one-third of the dead are kids, some who ran to the strange waves before real danger hit.

By Associated Press
Published December 28, 2004

DEATH RIDES A WAVE

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CUDDALORE, India - The buzz of grim conversation in the darkened morgue was broken by a man's shriek as the small body was lowered on a bed. "My son, my king!" wailed Venkatesh, hugging the limp shrouded bundle.

Thousands of miles away in Indonesia, farmer Yusya Yusman aimlessly searched the beaches for his two children lost in Sunday's tsunami. "My life is over," he said emotionlessly.

In country after country, children have emerged as the biggest victims of Sunday's quake-born tidal waves: Thousands and thousands drowned, battered and washed away by walls of water.

"The power of this earthquake, and its huge geographical reach, are just staggering," said UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy. Hundreds of thousands of children who managed to survive in the affected coastal communities now "may be in serious jeopardy," she added.

The U.N. organization estimates at least one-third of the tens of thousands who died were children, and the proportion could be up to half, UNICEF spokesman Alfred Ironside said in New York. He said communities are suffering a double loss: dead children and orphaned boys and girls.

"Our major concern is that the kids who survived the tsunami now survive the aftermath. Because children are the most vulnerable to disease and lack of proper nutrition and water."

Children make up at least half of the population in Asia. Many of them work alongside poverty-stricken parents in the fishing or related industries in coastal areas, so they were in harm's way when the tidal waves came. Many children from the more affluent families would also have been on the beaches for a stroll or for Sunday picnics.

In Sri Lanka, which suffered the biggest loss of life in the tsunami, crowds had come to the beaches to watch the sea after word spread that it was producing larger-than-normal waves.

Thousands of children joined their elders to see the spectacle. The waves brought in fish. The old and the young collected them. Many waited for more fun.

Then the tidal waves, 15 to 20 feet high, hit the tropical island of 19-million people.

"They got caught and could not run to safety. This is the reason why we have so many child victims," said Rienzie Perera, a police spokesman who said reports from affected police stations indicated children made up about half the victims in Sri Lanka.

On Monday, parents wept over the bodies of their children in streets and hospitals across the island, even as some dead children still dangled unclaimed from barbed wire fences.

The scenes of unimagined grief and mourning were repeated across Asia.

On the day disaster struck, Malaysian Rosita Wan recalled watching as her 5-year-old son was gulped by the sea while he swam near the shore at Penang.

"I could only watch helplessly while I heard my son screaming for help. Then he was underwater and I never saw him again," said a sobbing Rosita, 30.

About half of the nearly 400 people who perished in Cuddalore in India's Tamil Nadu state were children.

Under Hindu tradition, children are buried instead of being cremated like adults. For the grim task in Cuddalore, two pits, together about half the size of a basketball court, were dug near a river at the edge of this coconut palm-fringed town.

After one couple laid the body of their daughter in the deep pit, a bulldozer shoveled in sand and the little girl disappeared from view. They then stepped aside for others to bury their children, denied any chance for a service or private mourning.

Most of the children, ages 5 to 12, were buried as they were found - in their Sunday clothes - without the luxury of a shroud.

Local officials wanted to quickly finish the burial, and the cremation of adult victims, so they could turn their attention to helping those left alive.

"There will be a time for crying, but that will come later. Now the priority is to shelter those who survived," said fisherman Akilan, 28, who lost two nephews when waves struck their house. Akilan uses only one name.

Bodies of young and old lay unclaimed at the town morgue, awaiting identification by relatives. Doctors called them in one by one over a public address system, while vans brought in newly discovered bodies.

Venkatesh, who uses only one name, found his 11-year-old son Suman as his body was lowered on to a gurney.

The 37-year-old man had been in Dubai, where he went three months ago as a construction worker. When his wife called from Cuddalore to tell him their boy was missing, Venkatesh flew home immediately and went straight to the morgue.

"I never thought I would only see my son's body," cried Venkatesh, refusing even a sip of water.

As one of his relatives pulled him away, Venkatesh kept asking: "How can I go, leaving behind my son?"

[Last modified December 28, 2004, 18:30:14]


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