Los Angeles Times: January 05, 2005

The grimy 10-rupee bill is worth 25 cents. It has been folded several times so that it’s small enough to hide in the clenched fist of a 3-year-old girl.

Sitalakshmi won’t let go of it. For more than a week now, since the day of the killer waves, she has held the pittance tight in her tiny hand, as if her life depends on it.

The girl’s mother gave it to her on the morning of Dec. 26 to keep her from crying. It was the last time she would soothe her daughter that way. Now the greasy banknote has become the child’s hold on the way things used to be.

“She even sleeps with it,” said Sister Neeta George, one of the nuns who run the basement orphanage where Sitalakshmi lives in the Missionaries of Charity convent, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The waves that hammered India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands killed the girl’s mother, father and three of her brothers.

Only she and her 14-year-old brother, Balamurugan Kannan, survived.

With the courage of a man, a boy not much taller than 4 feet and weighing less than 80 pounds swept his little sister up in his arms and ran hard for higher ground.

His mother and father and three older brothers couldn’t outrun the waves. Like most of those killed here in the Andaman archipelago, about 700 miles east of the Indian mainland, their bodies may never be found.

India’s government has confirmed that more than 800 people died in the islands, and 5,681 are still missing and presumed dead. Local residents say the death toll is much higher.

In several southern Asian countries devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, orphaned children are among the most traumatized. Many come from seaside fishing villages, where the waves killed not only their parents but members of their extended families.

So they must turn to neighbors, or even total strangers, for help, protection and psychological support. They can easily be victimized again. Recovery efforts are just beginning, and orphaned children are already targets for abuse, warns UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency.

In recent days, UNICEF has confirmed at least one case of traffickers smuggling a child out of Aceh province on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra, the area hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

Indonesian authorities are investigating reports that traffickers have targeted dozens more children. A message transmitted to cellphone users in the region offered 300 Aceh orphans for sale, UNICEF says.

In an effort to prevent such trafficking, the Indonesian government has banned children under 16 from leaving Aceh without their parents.

On Monday, UNICEF appealed for $81 million in donations to help an estimated 1.5 million children affected by the Dec. 26 catastrophe, many of whom the U.N. says are orphans or children separated from their families.

Balamurugan and his family lived in a fishing village about 100 yards from the sea on the island of Katchal, a few hundred miles south of Port Blair. He was at a shop buying a bandage for his mother’s hand when the earthquake struck.

“I picked it up, and just as I was coming out of the shop, it started shaking violently,” Balamurugan recalled Tuesday. “I took shelter in a shop nearby. Everything was crumbling down around me. There was a crack in the ground, and I could see water coming out from the ground. I got very scared.”

When the ground was still again, the boy ran home. He saw his parents standing outside their house. Balamurugan shouted at his mother to stay outside while he went for his little sister, who, in the panic, had ended up at a neighbor’s house several hundred yards away.

The boy couldn’t find his sister at the first house. After he grabbed her from a second house and ran for home, the first tsunami wave struck, swamping the beach. Balamurugan barely had time to run for higher ground as the ocean swallowed the rest of his family.

He carried his sister for five hours as he climbed with other survivors to a camp near a rubber plantation. They were rescued by a government-owned passenger ship, the M.V. Sentinel, early on the afternoon of Dec. 28.

After a 28-hour voyage, the vessel delivered them on New Year’s Day to Port Blair, the islands’ main town. Balamurugan eats and sleeps here on tent canvas spread out on the front lawn of a boys’ high school.

More than 45 survivors from his island, where all but two villages were destroyed, live in the same schoolyard, sharing the same hard ground. Their only cover is a rainbow-colored canopy normally rented out to wedding parties.

Each day, he visits his sister at the convent, where she lives with other orphaned girls. She is lost without her brother and often wakes up at night calling for him.

On her worst night, the nuns sedated the girl with a few grains of a sleeping tablet.

“We gave it to her only once – otherwise it would affect her – just to get over the shock,” Sister Neeta said.

The nuns hope someone will adopt brother and sister, preferably an Indian family so they can grow up close to their roots. Also, Indian law and bureaucracy make it difficult for foreigners to adopt children.

“We usually keep children for three months and try for their adoption,” Sister Neeta added. “If they do not get adopted, then we take custody and educate them. After they grow up, we marry them off, if they’re girls, or buy them land if they are boys.”

Denis Giles is the Port Blair volunteer who spotted the two children on Katchal standing alone as a crowd of evacuees fled the island. He and his friends bought two dresses for Sitalakshmi, one with a ruffled pink top and red rosettes. Her brother got pants and T-shirts, one a bright yellow tourist souvenir of what was once a tropical paradise.

Brother and sister both got a bath and all the candies they wanted before Giles, 28, dropped them off at the convent, the place he trusted most.

Giles said Port Blair’s Catholic bishop assured him that the children would get a free education. When he recalled saying goodbye to Balamurugan the first night at the convent door, Giles choked up.

“While we were leaving, the boy started crying for the first time,” he said. “During the entire trip from Katchal to Port Blair he didn’t cry.

“Me and all my friends came and hugged him and said, ‘We will visit you whenever you want.’ ”