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From grief comes new life in tsunami-ravaged India

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Chicago Tribune


NAGAPATTINAM, India - Bhaskar waited 20 days to tell his wife that their two daughters were dead. The right words would not come. Not only were their children killed in the tsunami, the couple also could not have any others - Geetha had been sterilized years earlier.

But now Geetha, 24, who uses only one name like many in southern India, cradles her stomach. She is about four months pregnant, the result of a government program to reverse the sterilization operations for couples who lost children in last year's tsunami. Geetha is one of 50 women to undergo the surgery in this district, and one of only two to become pregnant.

"We want a girl," said Bhaskar, 27."We believe that one of our dead children will be reborn to us. That's why we are doing it."

The couple's temporary shelter room, where they have lived since January, already feels like it is filled with children, with posters of smiling babies on the wall and a framed collage of two girls in frilly dresses and flowers in their hair. But there is also grief here: The pictures are of Jyotika, 5, and Sosika, 3, whose bodies were never found. The tsunami destroyed the family's house and all their possessions. And Geetha ended up in the hospital, asking her husband where their children were, believing his story that they were at a relative's house.

Many shelter rooms have similar framed pictures - an homage to the dead - all with the tsunami's date of Dec. 26, 2004, and sometimes decorated with flower garlands or blinking lights. More than 6,000 people died in the tsunami in the Nagapattinam district of India, the hardest hit district in the country, and almost one-third of the dead were children.

For the people here, not much good has happened since the tsunami stole everything. Most victims still live in temporary shelters. A brutal rainy season has virtually cut the area off from the rest of the state. Fishing remains difficult - the men fish because it is the only work they know, yet fishing reminds them of the sea and all that they lost.

But for the people of two neighboring coastal villages, the pregnancies of Geetha and another woman, Kumari, are small miracles, the promise of life out of death. Villagers talk about them, and about another woman, who supposedly was sterilized but then miraculously conceived after the tsunami without any surgery.

For the families, these pregnancies are a mixture of grief, hope and local belief in reincarnation. Like Geetha and her husband, many couples have opted for the surgery because they believe their dead children will somehow be reborn in new children.

"We have lost two kids," said Kumari, 28, whose oldest daughter survived. "All we want is those two kids back."

She keeps her positive pregnancy test in its original box, along with the results from her first doctor's visit, which says she is due to give birth June 18.

Her oldest daughter, 10, now plays alone most of the time, painting her nails and dotting her forehead with red powder. She sometimes cries and tells her father that she remembered her sisters. The family keeps the framed picture of the dead girls in a plastic bag inside a suitcase. Seeing them is still too painful.

"If we hang it up, we start crying," said Sivakumar, 32, a beefy fisherman, as he put his hand over his heart. "I cry, my wife cries, my daughter cries. So we keep it hidden."

Kumari, Geetha and the other women agreed to be sterilized as part of a free government program that aims to cut India's population growth. Men here believe vasectomies will weaken them. So women typically get tubal sterilizations - a procedure that closes a woman's fallopian tubes. The surgery can be reversed, as long as the fallopian tubes are not damaged beyond repair.

After the tsunami, the district government announced it would pay to reverse the sterilizations. An estimated 250 sterilized women lost children in the tsunami, district officials said.

A village health nurse, Ranjini, became a major driving force behind the program. She has worked for 20 years in Akkaraipettai, one of the larger fishing villages in the district, and she knows everything about the people who live there. On the day of the tsunami, villagers brought their dead and dying to her door, including 27 children's bodies. She later counted the number of dead children she had delivered - 41.

After the tsunami, Ranjini visited the families of Akkaraipettai, where Kumari had lived, and neighboring Keechankuppam, where Geetha lived. She knew which women had decided to get sterilized, and she went door to door, telling the women that they could reverse their surgeries and try to get pregnant again.

Kumari and Geetha agreed immediately.

Geetha conceived first. With this pregnancy, she is being more careful than before. She no longer carries heavy water jugs, like other pregnant women, and she no longer does exhausting chores. Instead, neighbor women help her.

This pregnancy has not eased her grief, nor her husband's, especially because they see the photographs of their dead daughters every day.

Still, Geetha knows she is one of the lucky ones. One woman reversed her sterilization 18 days after the tsunami, but she has yet to become pregnant.

Another woman from Keechankuppam, Ariyamali, 28, had the surgery on Feb. 5. The tsunami killed all four of her children, three girls and a boy, who were never found. She plans to go to the doctor soon, to try to find out why she has not yet conceived.

"I feel bad," she said simply.

"There are problems in the house," added her husband, Packrisami, 32. "There are fights. When we had four kids, and now we have none, doesn't it make sense there would be problems in the house? We don't want money. We only want kids."

They were able to find a picture of their oldest daughter, snapped six years before the tsunami, at a relative's house. It hangs with flowers on the wall of their rented home; in it, Padmapriya wears a pink dress, and sticks her tongue out slightly. No photographs of the others survived.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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