Sat, Jan 22, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Trauma hits child victims of tsunami

Relief workers in the Indian Ocean are facing the terrible reality of a psychologically blighted generation -- and are only beginning to assess the mental health needs of the victims of the wave

By Peter Beaumont, Maseeh Rahman and Randeep Ramesh  /  THE OBSERVER , Pondicherry and Akbary, India


Ten-year-old Pradeep stares at a colored illustration depicting a terrified man being tossed about by a huge, sapphire blue wave. He shuts the book and says nothing.

But his eyes betray the pain he cannot put into words. The double-page picture illustrates a mythical tale and is part of an elementary school textbook that he has just been given by an official in Periyar Kallapet village in Pondicherry, the former French enclave on the Bay of Bengal. But Pradeep knows only too well the terror the sea holds.

When the giant wave hit his fishing village, he was playing near a temple with his two brothers, and all three managed to run to safety. His widowed mother was, luckily, away from the area, selling fish in the market.

But the boys" grandmother and 12-year-old sister Vasanthi were not so fortunate. Both of them were killed when the tsunami arrived, pulverizing the family"s seaside home.

"They were watching TV with the sound very high, so they did not hear the warning shouts from other villagers," explains Pradeep.

He now lives in a relief camp with his mother and brothers, with little certainty about when or whether the new house promised by the government will be built -- and by whom. But he still clings to his dream for the future. One day, somehow, he hopes he can still go to college, get a degree and become a government officer, like the one who presented him with the schoolbook.

"Even earlier, I never wanted to be a fisherman," he says. "It is too risky."

Pradeep"s is a story that is being repeated across the Indian Ocean"s wrecked communities.

In relief camps from Indonesia to Sri Lanka aid workers are confronting a new and terrible reality: that the children of the tsunami are a psychologically blighted generation.

Studies of previous disasters have shown that, of people who are still unable to function properly a year after a disaster, 30 per cent of them will remain "dysfunctional" for the rest of their lives, while an even larger number will carry lifelong scars.

In Indonesia alone some 35,000 children -- largely in Aceh province -- have lost one of two of their parents. As if that were not traumatic enough, it is the way in which their parents, friends and other relatives died: swept out to sea in front of them as they clung on, that already has been responsible for deep mental damage.

In Akbar, a fishing village on Sri Lanka"s eastern coast, amid the wreckage of an empty school, an 11-year-old boy, Jaheer Najoor, wanders through his former classroom searching for friends who will never return.

Of the 30 pupils in his class, he is the only survivor. Gone too is the boy"s speech.

"Jaheer has not spoken since the tsunami came," says Ahmed Mohiddin, principal of the school. "We had 600 students. Now I cannot count half of that number alive."

Jaheer lost his mother in the tragedy, and his father cannot cope with the loss. So he now lives with an aunt far from the shore.

"He is too afraid to return to the beach. How can a child understand what has happened?" says Mohiddin.

Dressed in a blue shirt and shorts, the child stares at flattened coconut palms and the smashed walls that once lined his former school. When asked what happened here, he turns away and cries.

In the wrecked communities of Aceh, where Save the Children has been working for 30 years, staff have been shocked by what the tsunami has done to children"s minds as well as their bodies.

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