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Grieving parents return to sea's edge

NAVALADY BEACH, Sri Lanka -- As dawn breaks over Sri Lanka's coast, dozens of parents come to the beach where huge waves seized their children a week ago.

"They believe their kids are alive and the sea will return them -- one day," UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy said yesterday after touring this island country's tsunami-devastated shore.

Children accounted for a staggering 40 percent, or 12,000, of Sri Lanka's death toll of 30,000, officials said. But without bodies to mourn over, many parents find it hard to believe their children are dead. Some children were buried in mass graves before parents were told. Many were swept out to sea. Others may still await discovery in some of the island's 800 refugee centers.

Day after day since the tsunami struck Dec. 26, parents come at dawn and wander the beach in the districts of Ampara and Batticaloa.

"They don't talk to anyone. They stay for an hour or two and then go back," said N. Wijewickrema, the Batticaloa police superintendent. "They return the next day," he told Bellamy.

Yesterday, a few couples walked slowly along the beach. Other people walked alone. Sometimes they knelt down to check a slipper or shoe that washed ashore.

"I have never seen such a tragedy like this," Bellamy said, as surviving parents awaited a miracle. "They don't want to accept their children are dead."

Some parents, who lost all their children, reportedly have taken orphans from refugee centers to raise as their own before the authorities were able to place the children with extended family members. Aware of the problem, UNICEF's Sri Lanka chief, Ted Chaiban, said the agency and local child-care groups would establish a national program to match orphaned children who have no one else to care for them with grieving parents.

"The first priority for children who are separated or unaccompanied is for them to stay with their extended family or relatives," said Chaiban, who accompanied Bellamy on a helicopter tour of stricken areas. "We welcome efforts by individuals and institutions to assist unaccompanied and separated children, and request that they inform the authorities."

Maleec Calyanaratne, spokeswoman for Save the Children, said the families were trying to grapple with their grief, but "this is not the way to go about it." Unofficial adoptions will lead only to long-term problems, she said.

Grim as Bellamy's tour was, there were signs of life returning to normal; children skipped rope, with ropes provided by UNICEF, at a 100-year-old Hindu temple in Batticaloa.

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