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Beach Vigil In Sri Lanka

As dawn breaks over Sri Lanka's shores, 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 on Sunday, after touring this island country's tsunami-devastated shore.

Children account for 40 percent, or 12,000, of Sri Lanka's total death total of 30,000, officials say.

Numerous parents have scoured some of the 800 refugee or relief centers for their missing children. Many have no evidence they are dead.

Some children were buried in mass graves without their parents' knowledge.

Day after day since the tsunami last week Sunday, parents come after daybreak and wander the beach in the devastated 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 the U.N. official.

On Sunday at Navalady, a few couples walked slowly along the beach. Other people walked alone. Sometimes they knelt down, checked a slipper or shoe to make sure it didn't belong to their own children.

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

Some people who have lost their entire families have been reported to take orphans from refugee centers to raise as their own.

UNICEF is aware of the problem, said Ted Chaiban, the organization's Sri Lanka representative. He said his agency, along with Sri Lankan child care groups, were trying to set up a national program to match orphaned children 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, accompanying 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," he said.

Chaiban said a national database was being prepared to help resettle affected children.

An official from the Department of Child Care and Protection said on condition of anonymity earlier this week he had heard of a dozen cases in which orphaned children had been taken by families that lost loved ones.

The Save the Children organization in Sri Lanka said it also heard of such incidents.

The group's spokeswoman, Maleec Calyanaratne, said that the families were trying to grapple with their grief — but that "this is not the way to go about it."

Ad hoc adoptions will only lead to long-term problems, she said.

But Bellamy's tour was not all bleak. Children skipped rope, provided by UNICEF, at a 100-year-old Hindu temple in Batticaloa.

"We are going to make sure they stay alive, and we want to make sure that they have a future," said Bellamy.

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