After the tsunami, kids find their way forward - with helping hands
BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA — The drawings show square houses, green trees, and a big yellow sun rising over blue ocean. In some, stick figures are running or swimming - or drowning.
Anda Nita, a 4-year-old tsunami survivor, looks up from his paper. What's he drawing? "Mountain," he says, and goes back to sketching more humps.
"They always draw the mountains," sighs Prawoto, a social worker who runs a play group for around 50 children at a refugee camp here. To the kids, many of whom lost family members as well as their homes in the Dec. 26 tsunami, mountains provided an escape from surging ocean.
Prawoto, who started the play group, says drawing gives kids a chance to express feelings about the giant waves that uprooted their lives. It's also a way to voice darker fears of an uncertain future, and all that was left behind.
It's an approach that has paid off in other tsunami-affected like Sri Lanka and Thailand. Experts in child protection and psychological counseling say that most children can slough off horrific memories that would haunt many adults, and can find solace in play.
"What we've found is that [children] have been really willing to discuss their experience. It's very helpful. It helps us to understand what's on the inside," says Charlie Melvin, a psychosocial counselor at Save the Children, a US charity.
A tiny percentage of children, though, may require specialized trauma counseling in the future. To make sure such cases are identified, Indonesia is training around 1,800 teachers at 612 schools across Aceh in social psychology and trauma awareness. Even if no cases emerge, teachers will be better equipped to deal with the tragedy's aftermath, say educators.
"You don't need to talk about tsunami all the time. But if the children do want to tell their stories, listen to them," says Abdul Aziz, an education officer at UNICEF, which is supporting the training.
Of the $960 million pledged in US government tsunami aid, $52 million has gone to support programs in Indonesia. A "good portion" of this amount is earmarked for psychological activities, according to Betina Moreira, a spokesman for USAID in Indonesia. The scale of the tragedy and its impact on the mental health of survivors make it a priority area.
"The number of families broken up, children left without parents, and parents left without children is much greater than any other disaster we've dealt with in Indonesia," she says.
For remaining family members, separation is difficult. Some parents have been reluctant to let their children attend school and play groups since the tsunami struck. Or they wait outside during class, afraid to be away from their children, who often share their parent's anxiety and find it hard to concentrate, say educators.
This fear is understandable, given the tsunami's devastating impact on Aceh's young generation. Aid workers estimate that at least one-third of the 235,000 people listed as dead or missing in Indonesia were children who were unable to overcome the giant waves.
Among those who did is Ari Pratama, an impish 11-year-old at the play group. At the time he was staying with his grandmother at her house near the sea, and when he heard a commotion in the street he ran outside. "A neighbor told me don't go inside, the sea is coming. But it came so fast I was swept away. I tried to swim and I'm a good swimmer, but I was underwater and my leg was trapped," he says.
Somehow Ari floated to the surface and held onto a tree until the water receded in the evening and he was reunited with his parents. His grandmother was never found, though. "Sometimes I think about the tsunami and I tell my mother about it," he says.
Sharing such experiences within Aceh's tightlyknit communities is nothing new, though counselors sometimes meet resistance from those who see their methods as foreign or Western. In response, they stress that their ideas of psychological healing fit into Aceh's traditional Islamic culture, with its emphasis on social rituals and prayers.
One such practice is peusijuk, a communal prayer used to give strength to community members in tough circumstances. "This is really part of the healing process here in Aceh," says Aziz. "We use a lot of Islamic values [in training educators], this is the way to comfort people unsure about the Western ideas. We say this is your culture, your religious values."
In the west-coast town of Lamno, morning playtime is a boisterous affair. Kneeling on a blue tarp, dozens of young children clap their bodies and mouth the words to a traditional Islamic song that their teacher has sprinkled with references to the tsunami that swept away their villages. Boys and girls sing separately, and most of the girls wear white or flowery head scarves, even those as young as 5.
It's a steamy hot morning but the children perform with gusto as their instructor tells a group of visitors about her plans to stage a singing contest between Lamno's different play groups, which are supported by World Vision, a US-based Christian charity. Maimunah says her children are unabashed by songs of giant crashing waves. "All of them were affected by the tsunami so this is their history," she says.
Back in Banda Aceh, the play group is winding down. Perched on a plastic chair, Muri Hayati, who is 8, says she misses her friends from her old neighborhood, though some have come to visit her family at the camp.
"Before the tsunami, we were a poor family," she said, shyly tugging at the hem of her red dress. What little that they had - a two-bedroom home, a TV - was swept away. Still, Muri can see a future beyond the crowded camp. When she finishes school - "and becomes a big person" - Muri reckons she will become a doctor. "They make a lot of money," she says.