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Tsunami Relief Workers Launch Children's Programs in Aceh

Scott Bobb

Three weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck, aid of some form is reaching most of the estimated one million people who lost their homes and livelihoods in Indonesia's Aceh province. Relief agencies are beginning to focus on the welfare of hundreds of thousands of children who survived, but were left without schools and, in some cases, without parents.

It is early morning in Lamgugop village, a community of about 1,000 people lying on the outskirts of Banda Aceh. A hundred or so children are playing in the village's small mosque.

A group of boys about 10-years old sing a song at the top of their lungs, while a group of girls sitting nearby join in more demure fashion.

Quieter kids are playing board games, while a group of teen-age girls giggles over a private joke.

Three weeks after the tsunami smashed through their homes, leaving only the foundations, the children of Lamgugop are enjoying being children again, if only for a moment.

Afriyani, a bright young woman of about 14-year-old wearing a beige headscarf, says she lost 30 members of her extended family in the disaster. She is especially worried about the effect on her education.

"I am very sad because my school is destroyed," she said.

Afriyani is in the last year of middle school and she is afraid she will miss the examinations needed to pass into high school.

Her friend, Laili Fitriah, lost her grandmother and dozens of family members. She is afraid the water will return and get her. Laili says when she is afraid, she prays to God that the disaster will not happen again.

Dian Fitri is a 21-year-old college student who is studying accounting. She says she volunteered to help here because sometimes it is difficult for the children to speak to outsiders.

Ms. Fitri, who herself is missing several family members, says the children are still traumatized by the disaster, and many are terrified that the water will return. But she says they are relaxing more now. She is trying to help them forget by engaging them in activities and conversation.

The program in Lamgugop is one of the first to be organized by the Save the Children aid group. Coordinator Christine Knudsen says right now children need a chance to have some normal activities.

"The children have had their whole worlds turned upside down, literally and figuratively, and [the activities are] helping them to bring sense to it, helping them to sort through the experience and helping them just to relax so they can begin to process that," she said.

She says the activities help workers spot children who may need special attention, and provide an introduction to parents who will be vital to their children's readjustment. Afterwards, she says, they will introduce more structured activities, like group discussions, and those individuals needing therapy will be passed on to psychological teams.

She says all the agencies working with children are aware of reports that child traffickers may be seeking to take advantage of orphaned children.

"We certainly have not been able to confirm any reports," said Christine Knudsen. "Our important thing right now is to support families so that they can help their children, so that they can look after their children, and so that we reduce that risk as much as possible."

She says her organization has registered about 60 children without families and is looking for their relatives. But she says an even larger number of parents, about 140, are trying to trace missing children.

The agency is working with donors to re-open the hundreds of schools that were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami. The goal is to send as many children as possible back to school by the end of the month.

Save the Children and similar groups are also shipping in books and supplies for the schools, and are planning to train teachers to replace the estimated 1,500 who were killed in the disaster.

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