Tears swell in student Fathima Farha’s eyes as she waits, on edge, for her friends to arrive for their first day back at school. She already knows some are dead, but she’s not sure about the rest.

"I’m very sad. I lost my friends and my neighbours. Today my friends are not here. I wish my friends were alive," the 17-year-old said among the wreckage of her tsunami-hit school, metres (yards) from the harbour in the southern Sri Lankan town of Galle.

Opening books again is the furthest thing from her mind.

"I don’t know if I can study again or not," she said, peering from beneath her blue headscarf and standing close to two friends who did survive.

At Sudhamma College, teachers and students expected up to 450 of their 1,200 students to be dead or missing after the December 26 Asian tsunami disaster, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans.

The schoolyard was dotted with teachers sitting at small desks, listing the students who survived the catastrophe along with whether they still have a home, school uniform, shoes, books and other essential items.

"There are really a lot of children who are left without houses, we’re finding this out," said teacher Kapila Dhanayake. Twenty-two out of class 8A’s 36 pupils had arrived.

The principal asked the anxious parents to split into two groups — those who still have homes and those who do not. At least a third do not.

Parents, children and teachers, only a handful wearing the usual crisp uniform of a white shirt and white or royal blue shorts, had mixed feelings as they surveyed the damage, peering into the damp classrooms still standing.

Father Mohamad Subair, 50, tightly clutching his seven-year-old son’s hand, was ambivalent about letting his three children return.

"I’m happy that they’re in school but not so happy about this place," he said, worried about its proximity to the ocean.

His family’s home was destroyed, along with all of his children’s school books and supplies. They salvaged one school uniform, which his son was wearing.

There were no classes Monday. In the afternoon, the teachers were to discuss how to help those children who survived.

Some were here only to inform the school of missing children.

Chaohamid Mohamad Riza’s sister and her three children were killed in the horrific train derailment at nearby Meethiyagoda in which the ocean entombed at least 1,300 people.

"I’m coming to tell the school about this," he said.

English teacher Manel Ekanayake, 34, lost 10 of her students and was concerned about more. She was also upset at the scale of damage to the school, which saw one building housing 14 classrooms flattened.

The yard was crisscrossed with muddy tyre tracks from the dump trucks that carried away the debris and strewn with broken glass.

"This school had a very nice environment before the tsunami. Now it’s a complete wreck," she told AFP, adding that the teachers still wanted to hold classes here to push the government to quickly repair it.

She said counselling, for which the teachers have little training, would have to take place before the students return to their normal academic syllabus.

"We are not hoping to return to teach them at once. We feel that they need counselling. We have to listen to them, they have a lot of stories to tell… No one is happy."

Across town, St Aloysius’ College escaped damage but at least five of its 3,630 students and staff died, with the number expected to rise.

Teacher Chandana Amarasinghe, 39, speaking Sunday, said he too believed the children would need intensive counselling to help them cope with the tragedy.

He said he had already met with students who had lost their homes and "have almost lost their minds" as he warned that teachers were unprepared to cope with the new needs of their fragile students.

"We teachers need some sort of training to help those children who have been affected by the catastrophe, to know how to bring them back to what they were, mentally, before it," he said.

At least, getting back to school would be a start, and better than sitting around in camps or destitute homes, Amarasinghe said.

"Once they come here, they’ll be together with their friends, and they’ll forget about everything for a while. It’s some kind of relief for them."

At nearby Unawatuna, parents and children at Sri Samanajoti School assembled at the field where their school used to stand. There are only chunks of bricks and mortar left.

All 146 students were accounted for but there is nowhere for them to study. Teachers compiled lists of preferred alternative schools for the students, who will have to join new classes next week.

Father H. Thilakarathna, 42, who lost one of his four children to the tsunami, said he wants his children to return to study.

"But all the time, we are always thinking about the water."

/ Current Affairs