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Displaced students strive to connect at new schools

PORT BLAIR, India -- Hari Krishna was back in school yesterday, confused as ever in his chemistry class, but grateful for any place to learn at all.

The Dec. 26 tsunami swept away his old school on the remote island of Hut Bay, killing his teachers and some of his classmates.

Now the 16-year-old is back in class, far away from home and studying alongside other refugees.

"It feels like the first day of school . . . all new faces, new teachers," said Krishna.

Schools have reopened on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands after the tsunami swamped coastlines around southern Asia. As of yesterday, India's official death toll was 9,479, with 5,681 other people missing and feared dead in the remote island territories such as those in the Bay of Bengal.

More than 800 have been buried or cremated on the islands.

"My head spins every time I think of that sight. There were so many bodies . . . men, women, cows, dogs," said Krishna, whose family lost its home, but survived. "I don't even know how many of my classmates died -- who could count? And all the teachers are gone."

Only a few concrete poles remain of his school, and he is concerned because all his academic records have been lost.

"Now there's no proof . . . of who I am and which school I studied in," he said. "My examination card, my educational certificates, books, everything is gone."

At the refugee camps where Krishna and others are staying in Port Blair, the islands' capital, dozens of makeshift classrooms have opened. New books, stationery, and uniforms were handed out.

Krishna is among thousands of children displaced by the disaster. It's uncertain when they will be able to go home, but the students in Port Blair were doing their best to make the newcomers feel welcome.

"They know what we went through," he said.

Rajesh Kumar, a 15-year-old Port Blair student whose home also was destroyed, said he and other youngsters felt it was their duty to befriend those streaming in from other islands.

"Their problems were much bigger than ours. They barely survived," Kumar said. "We have all decided to talk to them and become friends."

At lunch recess, Krishna watched silently as students from his old school did what most Indian boys love best: They played cricket -- with a broken chair for a wicket and its armrest for a bat.

The children, all fifth- and sixth-graders, took a break from playing and huddled around Krishna on the steps as they fondly recalled their old school.

"Over there, our voices would echo in the classes," said 14-year-old Manmat Rao. "It was so peaceful."

Added Krishna: "Our school ground was so big, about 10 times this size. We used to play cricket, football. Our teachers were so nice." The others nodded in agreement.

"I miss home. I feel like crying all the time," said Tejeshwar Rao, 12. "My parents used to say, 'We are working hard to earn money so that you may go to school.' But where's the school?"

Over a megaphone, a relief camp official called that it was time for lunch, but no one moved.

"Who was your favorite teacher?" someone asked.

"Mr. Murthy, math teacher. He is a super teacher. He explains everything so well, math seems so easy," said Tejeshwar Rao.

"And Mr. Shakeel," said Manmat Rao. "And Mrs. Shanti."

Others muttered other names -- teachers they believe have been killed, since none has appeared at the refugee center.

The call for lunch came again. Still, no one moved.

"We don't want to eat," said 12-year-old S. Lover. "When we put a piece of food in our mouths, we can see only the dead bodies in our mind. Our friends are all gone; we want to throw up."

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