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Two Weeks After South Asian Tsunamis, Some Focus Moves to Children

January 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BILL NEELY: She was ten or eleven. Nobody knew who she was– her long black hair, the only feature left after two weeks. On the village square, they buried her in the sand in a mass grave quickly, no parents, no friends there to see her leave the world.

She was from Akbar Village. One of Sri Lanka’s model villages, it means “great.” It’s not so great anymore. It is a very small place, this, and it’s lost an awful lot of its children: 1,086 to be precise. Staggering losses in Akbar– entire extended families gone.

MAN: One hundred forty-five.

BILL NEELY: One hundred forty-five?

MAN: Yeah, my mother’s family, my father’s family, my sister, my daughter, my brother.

BILL NEELY: Akbar’s homeless survivors live here now. Rataman, the teacher, now sleeps in a classroom. Karim, the hotel owner, owns nothing. Saba, the singer, is the only old man I saw. Faruk, the watchmaker’s business is finished.

FARUK: Yes, 27 years’ service.

BILL NEELY: Reporter: One toilet?

FARUK: One toilet. One toilet is available.

BILL NEELY: Reporter: For how many people?

FARUK: One thousand, five hundred people.

BILL NEELY: Reporter: The conditions and the losses are heartbreaking. Rahala lost four of her five children and her husband. Her friend lost her two girls. Titradue lost two daughters and a son.

The surviving children draw the homes they once had. The blue sea in the picture is enormous. There are bright moments.

Three-year-old Patama is handed back to her father. For two weeks he thought she was dead. She’s still in shock. After being picked up from the debris, strangers tried to claim her as theirs.

MAN: More than 15 people came to the hospital and claimed that they are the identity of this child.

BILL NEELY: Back in the ruins of Akbar, more bodies have been found. Akbar sits at the edge of an angry sea. As they pump its water back out, the remains of the villagers emerge. There were wedding days and happy days here. Now its young generation is gone, and its people pull together in vein.

As for rebuilding this place, well, that just won’t happen. All this will simply be bulldozed, and Akbar Village, the model village, will be no more. It took 20 years to build it and 20 minutes to destroy it, and there are hundreds like it all along Sri Lanka’s coast.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has more.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined now by Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. She recently toured two countries hit by the tsunami, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Carol Bellamy, welcome. Now that two weeks have passed, has UNICEF had a chance to really assess the impact of this disaster on children?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, we’re trying. We are not there yet at this point we’re… we have registration going on in virtually the majority of the camps in which the kids are living, the families are living.

We’re trying to figure out which children have lost parents, have they lost one, have they lost both? Do they have any family members, relatives, still living? These are countries with a long tradition of extended family. This is a process that’s ongoing, but it’s a challenge.

RAY SUAREZ: Have countries had to either restate or come up with a policy on international adoption, on who is your guardian in a situation like this?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, a number of the countries, and each of them deals with it a little differently. But Indonesia, for example, has said at this point they would put a temporary moratorium on moving children out of the Aceh region, which is the region most affected in Indonesia; similarly Thailand, similarly Sri Lanka, slightly different policies.

You know, it’s a little premature to be talking about adoption at this point. Before adoption– and there will be some adoptions– we need to know which of the children have no family members left because many of them do. We need to bring them back together with their family members.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s different about doing recovery work with children?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, you know, so many children were so affected in this horrible tragedy. I’ve never seen anything as broad as this. And they are alone. I think I’ve never in my ten years at UNICEF been in a situation where so many children seem to be alone.

Bringing them back together with their families is crucial. So what’s different is that in some places there are too few children because too many died. In other places there are too many children without families.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a sense in which we tend to concentrate on treating physical wounds and injuries, quickly doing assessments and work-ups on people that address the state of their body and don’t pay enough attention to their state of mind at this point?

CAROL BELLAMY: Oh, we do. I mean that’s understandable — clearly food, shelter, water. If you don’t have these things, you know, you weren’t a victim in the first but you could become a victim in the second.

But the trauma that everyone– adults and children but particularly children– have experienced is so extraordinary in this situation that we have to look to this… we could call it mental health. It’s not a matter of bringing in armies of psychiatrists.

It’s a matter of getting, for example, children back into school. Let them draw pictures. Let them play. Let them be together. Let them come into some kind of a normal or at least something that seems like it’s normality for them. This is the way to try and deal with this, but it isn’t just physical. It’s psychological as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the children in the countries that you visited in particular, the most heavily affected countries, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, vulnerable at this point to exploitation, being sold for labor or other purposes?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, they are. You know, criminal elements like to take advantage of any kind of difficult situation. You know, it’s like looters who take advantage of the lights that are out.

We know there have been criminal syndicates involved in trafficking of children, largely for sexual exploitation purposes in this region in the past. It’s just long before this tragedy. So in this chaos there could be problems.

I think most of the reports so far are not substantiated but some of the prevention mechanisms put in place like Indonesia saying you can’t transport kids out of Aceh, like Sri Lanka saying that they’re going to make sure that families take care of children within the country; these are prevention methods that are very important. They will protect the children.

RAY SUAREZ: I guess we’re going to see a lot of adolescents coming to the fore, as heads of households when their own parents have died. Is there extra care that has to be taken with these newly reconstituted families?

CAROL BELLAMY: Yes. Again, our initial experience is that many children lost parents. There’s no question about it.

But there are relatives so I’m not sure we’re quite running into what we would see in some other parts of the world and certainly where there have been wars, child-headed households. I think what we’re going to see is an increased number of children who are part of an extended family.

Some children will ultimately need to be adopted largely within their own country, their own society, their own community. But I really do think we’re going to see coming together of there extended family network which it may not be the best but you know what? It is a family.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there some places where the government’s more intact and more able to handle these challenges that sort of come to the fore and have been able to take charge?

CAROL BELLAMY: There are. But I think it’s very important to understand that in every one of these countries in the Asian region that’s been affected, the government is actually in the lead.

The United Nations has been identified as the key entity to lead the international relief effort. But the governments are leading. But let’s think. India literally said we’re going to respond to this problem; Thailand largely has said that. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, they’ve welcomed international efforts, and that’s very important.

But they say they too will lead. So it’s very important. In the long run– and I think it’s the long run good for these countries– it’s the governments leading. There is more need in Indonesia and Sri Lanka for international help. And I’m pleased to be part of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Carol Bellamy, thanks for being with us.

CAROL BELLAMY: Thank you.