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Tsunami was final blow in sad lives

Even before the tsunami, they were unlucky children. Some had been abandoned; others were orphaned by Sri Lanka's civil war.

For eight years, Malathy Senathirasa cared for the boys and girls at the home called Senthalir Illam, or Sapling House, in the northern seaside town of Mullaittivu.

The water lifted the children's home from its foundations. Of the 154 children who were at Senthalir Illam that day, only 36 survived.

Malathy Senathirasa lived, and so did the boy who stands quietly by her side, 8-year old Sena Venthan. But she can't sleep.

"I spent so much time washing their clothes and feeding them, and in a small time, I lost almost all of them," she said, digging her henna-dyed fingernails into the brown skin of her arms.

Mullaittivu is no more. On Wednesday, the town was empty but for stray dogs and cleanup crews from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, the rebel group that controls this part of the country.

The children live in Kilinochchi now, the capital of the rebel-held portion of Sri Lanka, a dusty, bullet-scarred town an hour's drive from the sea. On Wednesday afternoon, they played board games on mats in a sandy yard and ran around shrieking and tossing a white volleyball. When they stopped playing, their eyes were large and deep-set, their movements sudden and jagged. They stared into space. At night, they writhe in their beds, haunted by bad dreams.

Shanthini Sivakumar, a 14-year-old with glazed brown eyes, lived in the home with her three younger sisters. Her father and mother separated and he remarried. Her mother gave them up because she couldn't afford to keep them.

Shanthini has only one sister left, a 9-year-old named Kumuthini. She was sitting in a classroom making covers for school books when she heard a loud noise and a voice yelling, "Go, go, go, run!" Soon she was in the water, then under it. She lost track of time. When the wave began to subside, some boys who had hidden in a high shelf called to her and handed down a rope for her to grab.

Sometimes the children ask whether the water will come back. They talk about what happened, where they were when the water came and how they survived. The younger ones ask where the dead children are, and the older ones, who know about death, say they have gone away for a while. Several children are still recuperating in the hospital.

The morning of the tsunami, Senathirasa, 34, a broad-hipped woman with sunken eyes and a haunted look, bathed the children and gave them breakfast. She was about to take her own bath at the well when she heard a noise like a jet plane overhead. She thought it was the Sri Lankan Air Force, coming to bomb Mullaittivu, as it often had before during the two-decade civil war.

As the water rolled in like smoke, Senathirasa ran to a building filled with infants. But as she arrived the wave knocked down a wall, and she saw there was nothing she could do. She waded to the next building and grabbed two children, the infant girl and the boy, Sena. She hugged them close as the water rose, but the girl was swallowing water. When the wave retreated, it yanked her out of Senathirasa's hands.

As the water receded, she pulled herself up, still clutching the thin, large-eyed boy in her arms. Everywhere children were choking and gasping for breath. Some had climbed onto the roof or into trees to escape the rising wave. Most were dead.

Some of the children's corpses washed up in the lagoon near the school, about a quarter mile from the sea. The sand still holds things that belonged to them: a maroon clip-on school tie, a pile of English textbooks bound with twine.

Senathirasa tries to keep the dead from her thoughts. She would rather take care of those who are still alive.

"I want to save these children, because some don't have parents," she said. "I have no husband and no resources, and I want to spend my whole life with them."

On Wednesday evening, the fine-boned, dark-skinned girls in white and pink flowered dresses and the boys in shorts prepared for another night on old-fashioned metal beds covered with straw mats bearing the UNICEF logo. As the sun set, someone lit a lantern in the parlor. Outside, the children lined up under a mango tree to sing a Hindu prayer.

They stood side by side in two rows, chanting a call and response. Shanthini Sivakumar, the girl who lost her two sisters, was one of the leaders. Sena, the small boy with slender arms and long eyelashes who Senathirasa saved, stood near the front, singing determinedly with a half-smile on his face.

As the wave slammed into the school that day, Senathirasa prayed and called out to God. But as dusk fell Wednesday, she retreated to the kitchen. "In the past I believed in God," she said. "Now I have lost my belief."