NAGAPATTINAM, India (Reuters) - Seven-year-old Stephen Raj belts out a Tamil pop song, striking poses and swivelling his hips like a Bollywood star. Tamilarasan, 10, shyly shows a visitor the trophy he won in an art competition.
The children in this school assembly bear the marks of poverty, but while their clothes are shabby, they are eager and laughing. All have one thing in common. They are tsunami orphans.
The Annai Sathya orphanage in the south India town of Nagapattinam organised puppet theatre and magic shows when the children began streaming in after the Dec. 26 tsunami. Yoga and karate teachers were brought in along with trauma counsellors.
"We try not to remind them of trauma and flashbacks of sorrow," said Surya Kala, a social welfare officer at the orphanage. "We're entertaining them so they eventually forget."
The tsunami had a calamitous impact on children. At least a third of the 232,000 people who were killed or are still missing across a dozen Indian Ocean nations were children. Hundreds of thousands who survived are coping with the loss of family members, teachers and friends.
An unprecedented humanitarian effort mounted after one of the world's worst natural disasters especially targeted children, averting the second wave of deaths from malnutrition and disease that many experts had anticipated would follow.
Now hundreds of activists have joined international groups, such as Save the Children and the United Nations Children's Fund, to help deal with their traumas, get them back to school and try to keep them safe from abuse and exploitation.
Child trafficking, always a problem in India, has risen in some fishing communities where parents who lost everything have been persuaded to send children to work in sweatshops.
"The agents lend parents money and, when they can't pay it back, they send their children to town to work in the underwear industry, which is labour intensive," said R. Manivannan, coordinator at AVVAI Village Welfare Society in Nagapattinam.
"They are vulnerable to sexual abuse. There is a chance for exploitation," he said.
Psychological problems are compounded by life in the overcrowded temporary camps - around a million people are living in tents or wood and corrugated tin shelters around the tsunami region nine months after the catastrophe.
Social workers have fanned out to affected villages in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to give counselling to men, women and children.
Volunteers and aid groups have set up "Tsunami Learning Centres" in fishing communities in Thailand's hard-hit Phang Nga province on the southwest coast, where children receive counselling through after-school art programmes.
"Sometimes they still think about the wave, the damage it did, the people who died, their friends," said Nattakan Songpagdee, a 24-year-old Thai volunteer who runs the "Learn from Tsunami" programme in Khao Lak.
The emphasis is on positive thinking, looking to the future, she said.
"We believe the child can be the centre of the family and can influence the rest of the family," she said.
While most of the rubble in coastal communities has been cleared, psychologists and social workers are worried about the wreckage left in people's minds.
If anything, the children may be more resilient than adults.
The tsunami killed a disproportionate number of women and children, leaving "bachelor villages" of men struggling to run homes. Mothers guilty about surviving their children are battling depression. Fishermen are taking to the bottle rather than face the sea again.
The World Health Organisation says most survivors go through the grieving process and recover. But about 5 to 10 percent develop persistent problems such as depression and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. Severe depression, with suicidal thoughts, hits 1 to 2 percent.
"People just want to be heard," said A. Radakrishnan, the administrative chief of Nagapattinam district. "They want to know that the reactions they are feeling are normal."
Many mothers in India who lost children had been previously sterilised under the government's family planning drive. The Nagapattinam government has offered to pay for surgery to reverse the operations, bringing fresh hope for families despairing of never having children again.
"About 120 couples have expressed interest and 37 have undergone recanalisation so far," Radakrishnan said. He did not know the success rate for the operation.
"It's a very important psycho-social measure in that it removes the feeling they are helpless. It rekindles hope."
For Viyarseeli Nadarajahlingam, 32 and living in a temporary camp at Sri Lanka's northern tip, hope battles despair as she copes with the loss of her six children.
"Just imagine how it is to lead such a lonely life," said Nadarajahlingam, who tried to kill herself after her children drowned in front of her eyes.
She had a hysterectomy just before the tsunami, so all she can do now is pray that her husband makes good on a pledge to find a child to adopt to help her move on.