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A month after the waves


Young tsunami survivors back to school in Sumatra, Sri Lankans pray, Thai islanders put fishing boat to sea

GALLE, Sri Lanka -- While Sri Lankans lit candles and chanted prayers for the dead yesterday to mark one month since the tsunami, mourners on a Thai island launched two new fishing boats in a first step toward rebuilding the devastated local fleet.

On the hardest-hit Indonesian island of Sumatra, there were no memorials, but children went back to school and the empty desks of dead classmates.

A month after killer waves swept away more than 140,000 lives and ravaged coastlines around the Indian Ocean, survivors quietly remembered the tragedy and carried on with the struggle to rebuild their lives. But behind the public grieving was a deepening sense of frustration at the slow pace of recovery efforts.

"We have not received any assistance yet," read a banner strung between plastic tents housing survivors in Sri Lanka's southern city of Galle.

Candles and multi-coloured Buddhist flags lined a highway hugging the coast of Sri Lanka, where nearly 31,000 people died and a million were displaced by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

At the Ariyakara Viharaya temple near Galle, more than 2,000 oil lamps flickered in memory of the dead. Monks chanted on loudspeakers. Devotees brought fresh flowers.

"In memory of that day, for the missing and dead in all the countries, we are praying that a tsunami will never return," said L. Chandaransi, the head monk.

In Indonesia, where at least 96,000 died, there were no government or religious events to mark the day. Instead, officials said a proper remembrance was to send children back to school for the first official day of class since the tragedy.

Many students in ravaged Aceh province, however, returned to find their schools filled with mud and debris, with books, computers and other materials strewn everywhere.

And many of their friends and teachers were gone forever. Alqausar, a 6-year-old boy with neatly parted hair and a Power Rangers bag, arrived at school with his mother and wondered about his best friend, Andi. After about two hours of watching the school gate, it hit him.

"I don't think he's coming," he whispered.

Only six of his class of 43 showed up. Out of the 600 enrolled at SD Kartika primary school, just 260 returned yesterday.

At another school, English teacher Roslina Ramli ? who lost four children to the tsunami ? was one of 25 teachers who came to school. Before the tsunami the faculty was 75 strong.

"I have to put on a brave face," said Roslina. "Teachers are supposed to give the students strength and guidance but it will be hard.''

In one classroom, workers doing a last-minute clean-up found a body yesterday while shovelling out thick mud. The government estimates that 700 to 1,100 schools in the province were destroyed and 1,750 primary school teachers were dead or missing.

Nearly 180,000 students have no schools to go to, Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said. One month on, the full death toll from the massive earthquake and the tsunami it spawned is still not known ? and probably never will be. Differing government tallies in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the two hardest hit countries, have put the total number of dead in 11 countries between 144,000 and 178,000. As many as 147,000 people are missing ? many of them presumed dead ? raising the possibility that more than 300,000 died.

In the Thai resort of Phuket, residents and Buddhist monks unveiled a memorial wall honouring the dead. Authorities say more than 5,300 died in Thailand. Nearly a third of them were foreigners, including four of the six Canadians killed.

Meanwhile, the worst-hit areas, such as Phang Nga province north of Phuket, have yet to start rebuilding. And the Sri Lankan government has promised to rebuild destroyed homes, but has banned reconstruction along the beach.

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