Picture of terror
ON THE DAMP concrete floor of the Katigoda refugee camp in the Sri Lankan town of Galle, a small group of children is silently and intently playing with crayons. Escaping the heat of midday, they draw the same startling images over and over again - huge, colourful tidal waves crashing over tiny matchstick people.
Around them lie the battered pots and pans and faded water-stained photographs of families torn apart by the tsunami that blighted this entire community almost a month ago. It is a scene currently being played out throughout South-East Asia. In refugee camps across Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand simple crayons, felt-tip pens and paper - donated by Western charities - are emerging as the key weapons used by volunteers and child counsellors in the battle against the demons that inhabit the minds of the young survivors of the tsunami.
With increasing amounts of food and medicine arriving in many of the worst afflicted areas, aid organisations such as UNICEF and Save the Children are slowly turning their attention to the psychological wounds left behind in the wake of the worst natural disaster of modern times. With parents or guardians too traumatised or too busy trying to rebuild homes and lives to listen to their children, locally trained counsellors have now stepped in. In some cases they are medical graduates, many of whom have been recruited by organisations such as UNICEF to encourage children to share what they have suffered and, in doing so, help to prevent more serious psychological damage. In most cases they are volunteers using their own initiative to help the youngsters.
UNICEF say children between the ages of eight and 15 are most at risk from suffering severe and long-term psychological damage in the wake of the tsunami. Experts say that 40 per cent of children displaced or orphaned by the disaster could be affected if they are not treated, and the rush is now on to reach them.
ACCORDING TO UNICEF, the best cure for such trauma is simple. The children must talk about what happened as soon as possible and find an outlet for their nightmares. Drawing what they see in their minds has proven particularly effective.
"They have seen things they never should have seen, the stuff of nightmares. They are marked for life. Some will cope; some will be absolutely finished or phenomenally badly affected," Martin Dawes, UNICEF’s spokesman in Sri Lanka explains. "These camps are full of signs of traumatised children. Nervousness, listlessness, a lack of interest in play, a refusal to talk and an inability to sleep are all common traits we are seeing across the country."
At the moment, UNICEF is sending as many counsellors as it can into the camps and asking the children to express their feelings through drawings and to discuss where they go for help.
"It is a way to move them on from thinking only of the bad and, mostly, it is working," says Dawes. "After the talking and drawing, we are also encouraging them to play. All the games we encourage them to take part in have a point the children may not be aware of: to build trust between them and to work as a team. Our counsellors are not there for them all the time. In the end they and the friends they make from their time together in the camps will be the ones to help each other get over this."
One of the children crouching on the floor of the Katigoda Camp is nine-year-old Madusha. Swatting a swarm of flies from her tiny face she looks up at me and smiles as I hand her a lollipop. Clutched firmly in her hands is a black crayon, which she is using to create a huge curling wave. In the crest of the demonic looking tsunami she has drawn crude images of her family, her lost brother and sister and her parents, who are also missing. Her own self-portrait is at the side of the drawing and in it she is smiling. Her family, by contrast, have sad faces. This is the difference between life and death in the eyes of a child.
Madusha’s story is far from unique. From a family of 14, she and her elderly grandmother are apparently the only survivors. When the tsunami crashed through her family home in a small fishing community on the outskirts of the Sri Lankan harbour town of Galle, she was washed almost half a kilometre inland and, like many who survived the catastrophe, saved herself by clinging for dear life to a palm tree.
Out of the 30 pupils in her class at school, Madusha also appears to be one of only seven survivors - gone are her best friends and most of her peers. According to Fatima Hasna, a Muslim volunteer at the displacement camp that is now Madusha’s temporary home, when the schoolgirl first arrived at the camp she was unable to speak.
"A number of the orphaned and displaced children we have taken in were understandably deeply traumatised when they first arrived, avoiding all forms of eye contact," she tells me. "Many had lost their appetites and had lost the ability to speak. It is heartbreaking to look into the face of a child and see nothing, to get nothing back but then you think: ‘how can a child understand what has happened?’ In most case there weren’t even any tears - they were staring into space."
But slowly, says Hasna, things started to change: "As time passed we encouraged them to draw what they had experienced. They almost seemed excited to have a creative outlet for what they had seen. Everything was on such a massive and confounding scale for such young minds to understand. Now most of the children we have in our care are starting to turn the corner and open up. What comes next, though, is the reality of loss, and that will be the next step. When the orphans, in particular, go back to school without their mother saying goodbye to them."
THE UNITED NATIONS’ studies of previous natural disasters - such as the Gujarat earthquake in India which killed more than 20,000 people - have shown that, of children who are still unable to function properly a year after the trauma they have endured, 30 per cent will most likely remain "dysfunctional" for the rest of their lives. An even greater number will carry lifelong scars.
In the wrecked communities of Aceh in Indonesia, where 35,000 children lost at least one of their parents, Save the Children staff have been shocked by what the tsunami has done to children’s minds as well as their bodies. "There is this whole aspect of how we help these children cope with their feelings of grief at losing their families, friends and sometimes even whole communities that we are just beginning to deal with after the tsunami," says Eileen Burke, who is currently working with Save the Children in Banda Aceh. "Among the littlest children we have seen this fear that the earthquake and waves are going to come back at any moment. Some of the children have been so traumatised by what they have been through that they are unable to speak. They are not able to express their grief."
As with UNICEF, the response of Save the Children has been to set up safe areas in relief camps where children can be as normal as possible: playing sport, painting and simply being children. As part of the return to normality, Indonesia’s Ministry of Education has ordered that all children in the worst affected areas return to some kind of schooling by 26 January at the latest.
"In any given population you have 3 to 4 per cent who are at risk of developing mental health problems," says Christine Knudesen, senior protection officer for Save the Children. "In a crisis of this magnitude it is hard to say what the outcome might be but it could be 10, 20, even 30 per cent who develop some sort of long-term problems. What is unique here is the scale of the event. I usually deal with children in conflict situations, where the problems are generally chronic but go up and down. Children can deal with the death of a parent. But what is so different here is the sheer magnitude - trying to help children understand why grandma, auntie and four cousins have all died in a single incident. It is far too early, however, to start talking about post-traumatic stress. What we need to do is get normal routines going again and then see who needs more help."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 5 C to 11 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west