Update 2: January 19, 2005
As children return to school in southern Thailand, psychological aftershocks threaten to do more harm than the tsunamis have. ROB MCKEOWN reports from Ban Kalim.
"Will the water come again?"
It's one of the first questions students ask each morning at the Ban Kalim School, along Patong Beach on Thailand's Phuket peninsula. Dressed in school "suits" -- beige shorts or skirts and blue shirts or, for kindergarteners, red shorts or skirts and white shirts -- they sit on a dirty linoleum floor stained a shade darker by the tidal waves. Their chairs, like their desks, books, and teaching supplies, were washed out to sea. A crane has piled shards of furniture in a corner of the schoolyard. All that remains of the dining hall and a supply room is crumbled concrete, broken glass, and dust. There's a heavy damp smell in the air.
"We would normally have 35 students today," says Areerat, a kindergarten teacher. None of her students lost their lives in the tsunami, but many have transferred to schools farther from the beach. She wears a Hawaiian-style shirt whose bright floral designs contrast with the concern in her dark eyes. "They are scared." She started the day with 21 students, but parents of five collected their kids shortly after the beginning of class. "They just don't feel safe being near the ocean. Everyone says the waves may come again and their parents are more scared than they are."
For children, families, and teachers, coping with the fear is in some ways a bigger problem than the physical devastation.
"When will the waves come again?"
It is a question that children throw out with innocence, curiosity, and fear. Kids, psychologists like Dr. Ngamwong of Bangkok Phuket Hospital say, mirror what their parents feel. Up the coast in Khao Lak and Phang Nga, where more than 4,000 died, some locals are still hiding in the jungle. Here in Kalim, most came down from higher ground after a few days. They did not return to much. Some 30 homes and dozens of boats, taxis, rickshaws, and businesses lay where they were smashed by the waves.
"I don't want to be near the ocean, either," Areerat says. "I like the jungle."
The teacher's home where she lived was swallowed by the first and second tidal waves. But the teachers escaped as the water reached waist height in the road. "We lost everything but our lives," says another teacher, Nawaporn, whose clothes, identity card, and books were all washed away with the second wave. He shows me a photo of a crane picking his blue motorbike from a pile of rubble.
While the children eat a lunch of chicken, rice, chili sauce, and broth--donated by a local mall--and a volunteer from UNICEF takes pictures outside, Areerat quietly stares at a tourist paddling out into the high tide. "Why are Westerners not as scared?" she asks. "It will probably be about two weeks before we have normal days again. There is just a lot of fear and nobody understands about the tsunami still. We are not like Westerners."
Pasted on the walls are pictures the kids have been drawing. Some are of elephants painted cheery shades of green and pink. Others depict enormous waves, tumbling homes, and parents holding children by the hand. One child has drawn her mother dressed as the Siamese queen and carrying her to safety in the hills.
People in Ban Kalim mention over and over how good it was that the water came on a Sunday. On that day, the children were not in school.