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Schools offer lessons in healing

Children returned to school in this rural Indonesian district Monday, some in fresh uniforms, others ragged with bare, muddy feet. Among them was 15-year-old Syarita, who wants to be a doctor and thinks school will help her forget her terrifying run to the top of a hill while five family members died in the relentless waves below.

"I'm a kid and I need to go to school," Syarita said. "I have nothing now. I'm working for the future."

She lived on an island off the coast of Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh province, where officials said 420 schools were destroyed and 1,000 teachers killed. U.N. officials estimated as many as half the 104,000 dead on Sumatra were children.

In the schools that could reopen, most of them well back from the coast, surviving teachers put aside regular lessons and focused on healing.

"Today we're just teaching them how to pray in these difficult times," said Sutrisini, the principal of Guegajah Elementary School, who like most Indonesians uses only one name. She said normal lessons wouldn't resume for weeks. "By opening the schools, we're just trying to make the kids happy. They're so depressed," she said.

Classes also restarted 1,000 miles west across the ocean in Sri Lanka, where somber youngsters at some schools stood silently among empty desks to remember fellow students and teachers killed by the Dec. 26 waves. Other schools were jammed from an influx of refugee children whose villages were destroyed.

Schools that got going were crowded in Aceh province, the area on Sumatra island closest to the quake that sent huge waves crashing into coastal communities around the Indian Ocean.

Large aftershocks Monday aggravated survivors' fears, undermining government efforts to bring back some sense of normalcy, especially for youngsters. Many parents kept their children home.

Although the tsunami didn't reach this inland district a few miles from the ravaged provincial capital of Banda Aceh and few of its children were killed by earthquake damage, only about half the regular 130 students showed up at Guegajah Elementary.

"The parents are worried about the earthquakes," the principal said. "If there hadn't been shocks this morning, maybe all the kids would be here."

Syarita was among about 60 bedraggled refugee kids, some of whom joined in chanting verses from the Koran alongside headscarf-wearing girls and boys in shirts and ties sitting on wooden benches. The children crowded into two rooms, because homeless families from the coast are being housed in its four other classrooms.

Classes were far from normal in the Sri Lankan port of Galle.

Only about 80 youngsters, some accompanied by their parents, showed up at state-run Vidyaloka College, a tiny fraction of the 2,400 registered at the state school. Some had no uniforms, while others wore regulation blue shorts, white socks and short-sleeved shirts.

Y.G. Gamage, a 10-year-old who likes math and cricket, was happy to be back although his uniform was washed away in the tsunami. Clad in sandals, shorts and T-shirt, he shyly showed off the scrapes he suffered when the waves hit his house.

The school itself was a shambles: dank, empty classrooms, salvaged desks and chairs with rusty legs in the yard, the outer wall a pile of rubble. A third of its 96 classrooms were damaged, and many records were lost.

M.G. Gunapala, the principal, tried his best to get things in order. A slender man with a clipped mustache, he organized the returning to students to help clean up. He said regular classes wouldn't start until Jan. 20, speculating that was why many students didn't come.

"I'm determined to build up this place," Gunapala said. "If I don't have a positive attitude, I can't motivate the staff and the students."

Some schools in Galle couldn't open because they are jammed with people who lost their homes, and aid workers are struggling to provide alternative shelter so students can return to classes. Refugees fully occupied at least one Muslim school, A.R.M. Thassim College.

In Sumatra, UNICEF hopes mobile schools it is bringing in will arrive soon.

But since many people have thrown up makeshift shelters in open spaces while waiting to move to more permanent refugee camps, it may be some time before there is room for UNICEF to pitch its tented classrooms, said Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the agency.

"It's a brave gesture to set the mark out there by opening the schools," Weiss said. "It's symbolic for the people."