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Child Victims of Asia's Devastating Tsunami Cope with Trauma

  • Nancy-Amelia Collins

The December earthquake and tsunami that hit a dozen Indian Ocean countries and killed nearly 300,000 people left thousands of children without one or both parents. Even more lost siblings, friends, and relatives. Aid agencies working with these children say while they still grieve their losses, many have started on the slow path to recovery.

In the first days after the tsunami, relief workers say, thousands of traumatized children sat in shock and fear. Those suffering the most were children who had lost parents.

Tirana Hassan, a protection specialist with the aid organization Save the Children, says many children now are slowly starting to recover.

Ms. Hassan is now working in the Indonesian province of Aceh where around 230,000 people are reported dead or missing from the December 26 earthquake and tsunami.

"There is an incredible resilience amongst children here," she said. "You see a lot of adolescents for instance trying to be very strong and take care of their younger siblings and they're taking on more adult responsibility, which of course causes a concern on some levels but is also a credit to them how resilient and strong they can be."

In Asia, in general, and in Aceh in particular, life revolves around the family and community. Ms. Hassan says relatives and family friends have taken in many of the tsunami orphans. That support from within the children's communities is expected to help them recover.

Aid agencies, governments and military forces from around the world mobilized rapidly after the disaster to provide food, clean water and temporary shelter to the millions left homeless. Experts had worried that distressed survivors, especially children, could be lost in a second wave of deaths from illness and hunger but the rapid response avoided a greater tragedy.

Early efforts also prevented a possible man-made tragedy. In the early, chaotic days after the tsunami, there were fears that children could fall victim to human traffickers.

But the United Nations Children Fund and other aid agencies sounded the alert - warning governments, volunteers and families that lost, frightened children could easily be snatched by gangs who would sell them into servitude or the sex trade.

John Budd is with UNICEF in Indonesia and says there were no confirmed reports of children being kidnapped.

"We believe very strongly that UNICEF by alerting people to this particular danger and the government also responding, actually prevented the movement of children from Aceh in a big way without being registered so we wouldn't know where they came from," he said.

To reduce the trafficking risk, the International Organization for Migration is working in refugee camps, known as IDP camps, to protect children and women from being sexually exploited.

"We have now begun an awareness raising campaign about the issue of trafficking, focusing primarily in the IDP camps where there are many, many vulnerable women and children, obviously many children without parents, many women without spouses, and so our focus will be on raising their awareness about the issues of trafficking," said Kristin Dadey, who runs an anti-trafficking unit for the IOM in Indonesia.

Now that the children's immediate needs for shelter, food and security have been met, Ms. Hassan with Save the Children says governments must focus on the long-term needs for the children and other tsunami victims.

"Basically we are trying to rebuild communities," she explained. "So that's about supporting communities, shelter, supporting parents and families who are carrying for these children as well as getting the education sector up and running and supporting the government in rebuilding schools, and bringing back basically some of the things in children's lives that are important to their development in the long term."

Aid agencies and governments of the tsunami-effected countries agree long-term needs, including education and shelter, must be met to help the children who suffered such devastating losses. One sign of the commitment to providing long-term support: in many communities, the first public buildings to reopen very often were the schools, which were packed with children eager to return to some sense of a normal life.