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Travel Diary: Dr. Karen Hein reflects on Post-Tsunami India (Feb. 1)

Dr. Karen Heinis a member of the Christian Children's Fund Board of Directors and is also a pediatrician.She volunteered to go to India to help CCF in tsunami-affected areas. This is Dr. Hein's travel diary - reflecting on the images of devastation, recovery and beauty in the midst of unimaginable loss.

Feb. 1: (my 61st birthday)




It's Feb. 1st, my 61st birthday. We're spending another day in post-tsunami refugee camps in the Chennai (Madras) area doing health assessments of children. Yesterday, after a half-day of orientation by CCF staff, we (my husband Ralph and I and our Tamil staff person, Gokula) headed to the beachfront for our first experience with the reality of the tsunami... not just a TV clip or an article in the local paper ... but being with dozens of people, all eager to tell their stories and find out why we were there.

At first, the beach just seemed empty. A few huge pieces of wooden boats scattered about. A few men sat on the beach, facing different ways, not facing the water. As we got closer, we nearly tripped over chunks of broken concrete. That was all that remained of this fishing village where 1,000 families were living just five weeks ago. Fifty-two people were killed in this one village, and not one house remains.As we kept walking, the rubble became more dense ... pieces of driftwood, bits of plastic, random debris. Walking was difficult, since the ground was nothing more than piles of crumbled concrete. Out of the rubble, appeared more people living in makeshift lean-tos and huts, with plastic sheets partially covering upright sticks defining small spaces where a family or group of people were sheltered.

People have to get water from a nearby water pump and use a public toilet at a community center. Each day, the government brings some rice and the women line up to get an allotment. The kids are going to a school some distance away. They are afraid to return, and since there's little for them to do where the adults are, they stay at the school all day and evening.

People are afraid to sleep near the water, so many just sleep on the road or in the temple—away from the sea. At first, some older teenage boys approached us and began telling us about the situation, then older men and women joined us and finally some kids. They took us around, introducing us to people who couldn't walk because of injuries from the tsunami.

One young man had his feet bandaged and told us that he had 21 stitches in his soles to repair cuts sustained as he ran through the crumbled concrete to rescue children from the tsunami. The government gave him a few antibiotic pills, some vitamins and a pain reliever and told him not to walk. So, there he sits, in the rubble, on a mat ... five weeks so far.

There are no chairs, no beds, nowhere to sit and no privacy. Women cook on driftwood fires. They are stuck between their past and the future. The government has offered them temporary housing 20km inland, but the
temporary camp is 10km from the water and they are fishermen, sothey give up their livelihood if they move.

We walked and talked and sat in the sand with them. They showed us a baby about 7 months old whose mother threw the child into palm leaves and sticks when the tsunami hit. The baby survived and is fine.

All night I thought about why we are here and what we can do. Today, my birthday, we are going to some Child Centered Spaces (CCS) CCF has established in various locations so that kids have a place to be ... to grieve, to play and to learn.

Being here is the most meaningful birthday gift I can imagine. Perhaps today it will become clearer what we can do. Our charge is to make suggestions to CCF about integrating health interventions into the psychosocial support CCF is giving. Today, we are just students, learning from each person we meet.

Next entry: Feb 4 »