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Sponsor searches for missing orphanage

Officials from a British-based charity found few survivors from an orphanage they sponsored in hard-hit Sri Lanka.
/ Source: Reuters

Bob Uppington, a retired teacher from England, came to this tiny Sri Lankan tsunami-ravaged fishing village to find 40 children.

But visiting a local nursery school and a refugee camp on Sunday, a week after giant waves hit, he found no faces to match the snapshots of the three- to four-year-olds he had visited less than a fortnight before Sri Lanka's worst natural disaster hit.

"My stomach is churning," said Uppington, who runs a U.K.-based charity that funds the D.J. Doodle nursery school and makes periodic trips to Sri Lanka to pay the school's staff. "We just don't know how many died."

Local children were enjoying their school holiday when the tsunami battered Sri Lanka's shores, but many lived close to the badly damaged school building.

Grim-faced locals greeted Uppington as he surveyed the damage at the school in Karaitivu, in the eastern district of Ampara, the worst-hit by last Sunday's tsunami that killed nearly 30,000 in Sri Lanka and around 130,000 across Asia.

Although a stone's throw from the beachfront where the waves reduced homes to piles of rubble, the school's walls were largely intact with photographs of children still hanging up.

"A lot of children died, sir," Thangeswary Yoham, 42, told Uppington. "About 200 small children died this side," she added, waving in the direction of the sea.

D.J. Doodle, nestled among palm trees, was one of a number of schools in Sri Lanka and Nepal that Uppington's SHIVA Charity helps sponsor. It costs $115 per month to run.

He visited the school in mid-December to pay the teacher and see the children.

"I think we are going to knock it down and rebuild it," said Uppington, 60, from Bristol. "Right now it's a bit of a memorial to dead children."

After scouting around the debris-scattered beach, Uppington said he had found another crushed school with some neighbouring land where he planned to rebuild it.

Locals said several thousand people were killed in and around their village. Many women and children who could not move fast enough were caught in the deluge or crushed under buildings.

Just down the beach, one survivor rearranged large chunks of brick that once formed a home. Others walked through a large, open-air Hindu temple, the vivid red, blue and gold statues of elephant-headed god Ganesh on its facade still intact.

One woman sat with her head in her hands looking out to sea. Another moaned, slapping her arms on the sand. Just off the beachfront, a group of men gathered around a pile of rubble, covering their mouths with cloth. With so much devastation, it has been impossible to remove all the corpses.

Any bodies remaining are being burned on the spot.

Nanda Kumar, 36, said many locals would be scared to start rebuilding their lives on the beach. "But they have to. There's no other place for them, they work in the sea," he said.