BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA — Zulkiran Minrukom bounds to the stage at Blang Krueng relief camp, grabs a microphone like a Vegas lounge singer, and then turns to face the formidable crowd ... and freezes.
Blink, blink. He just needs to start singing and he'll warm up.
Blink, blink. Any song will do. "Old MacDonald." "Smoke on the Water."
Blink, blink. Perhaps we should give him some time. After all, Zulkiran is only 5 years old and this is probably his first singing contest. Blink. Deep breath, and finally, he warbles a love song about a girl named Zahra. The crowd breathes a sigh of relief.
Welcome to PM Idol, a contest run by the Indonesian Red Cross and modeled loosely on the "American Idol" television show. It's part of a psychological support program offered to children, like Zulkiran, who are survivors of last year's Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 200,000 and left more than 500,000 homeless. Organizers say giving children a chance to express themselves through song or poetry allows them to draw on inner strengths that every child has, and is a crucial step toward normalcy.
"We always work with teaching the idea that 'I have something, I can do something, and I am something,' " says Amin Khoja, a psycho-social programs specialist for the American Red Cross, which helped the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) to develop the PM Idol program. "Children can perform something, and when they build their internal resources, they can do something more. Because of this disaster, children have lost parents or teachers, they have lost their inner resources. So we hope this helps them to rebuild their own resources."
Participants in the contest become stars not just in their relief camp, in front of other children and parents, but also on weekly radio talk shows, hosted by PMI psychiatrists or counselors every Friday night. The top three winners for each category - singing for boys, singing for girls, and poetry reading - are recorded and replayed across the province.
The idea for the contest was serendipitous, but sprung from the Indonesian culture's profound love of music. A few months back, the Red Cross had been showing cartoons at a relief camp on hygiene and other issues when the projector broke down. While technicians struggled to get the projector working, two little girls took a microphone and began singing popular Indonesian songs. The crowd went wild.
Now, for the month of December, Red Cross workers are fanning out to relief camps in Banda Aceh and surrounding villages, conducting two local contests per week. Winners from each local contest will then perform in a final round on Dec. 23.
At Blang Krueng, an energetic master of ceremonies fires up the children. "Are you ready?" Yes, the children shout. "Have you had lunch?" Yes! The M.C. then calls the children on stage one by one.
A surprising number of songs are about the tsunami itself, an indication that the children are eager to make sense of a disaster that stunned much of the world, but which many Indonesians today view as a message from God to become better Muslims.
"At 8 a.m., there was an earthquake shaking the earth," sings Fajar Arif Mumandar, a 7-year-old from the camp. "Houses and hills were brought down. Everything is flattened. There are bodies everywhere. Allah, Allah, is this your will? We didn't believe in you before."
Other children sing traditional songs about orphaned children, songs that have suddenly become relevant to many of these children who have lost parents, brothers, and sisters.
While young Zulkiran's love song to Zahra warms the crowd's hearts, 7-year-old Mohammad Safrijal quickly becomes the favorite to win. Mohammad has a strong, clear voice honed by listening to the radio, and he sings a popular Indonesian song that warns that the end of the world is coming, because the content of popular movies have become worse and worse.
Mohammad says he finds comfort in singing, and he sings both at home and at Koran school.
Among the girls, it's clearly Yeni Zahra who has the edge. She reads a poem composed by her teenage sister Munira, who was killed by the tsunami. Yeni's family had found the poem among the rubble while they were searching for Munira.
"This poem is about life," begins Yeni, who seems wise for her seven years. "My older sister wrote this; she's not here anymore." She straightens her back. "She was taken by the tsunami. She's dead. This is a good way to remember her."
In the end, Yeni and Mohammad do take the first prizes, and Yeni's mom says she's proud of her brave little girl.
"I have never heard this poem before," she says, holding a small transistor radio that is Yeni's PM Idol prize. "Munira had written it for a school activity." Four of the five pages of the poem were lost in the tsunami. This is the only one that remains.
Mohammad's mom, Yulida, is also exudes a parent's joy and wonder for a homegrown talent. "I don't sing, so he learned this on the radio and at school," she says. "Of course, I'm proud of him."