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December 29, 2009

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Children recover hope five years after tsunami wiped out families

THE 2004 tsunami obliterated Pipit's village, wiped out her family and swept her through churning waters, cascading debris and hurtling bodies.

On her first night as an orphan, at the age of 13, she slept next to a row of corpses.

Five years later, she still has moments of sadness, especially during holidays. But like many of Indonesia's more than 5,200 known tsunami orphans, she is making a life for herself. She has enrolled in university, plays the violin and plans to tackle German.

"Most of the time, I don't think about the tsunami," says Pipit, who lives in a comfortable orphanage in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province and close to the epicenter of the earthquake that unleashed one of the worst natural disasters in history.

"I'm trying to be strong," says Pipit, who like many Indonesians uses one name.

The December 26, 2004, quake registered at least 9.1 on the Richter scale and unleashed towering waves that leveled communities from Indonesia to Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. About 230,000 people died, more than half of them in Aceh on the island of Sumatra.

More than US$13 billion in donations poured in from around the world, nearly half for Aceh. In some Indonesian communities, only the mosque was left standing. They have been rebuilt. Destroyed homes have been replaced by sturdier ones, new schools have gone up and freshly paved roads cross the region.

There are few visible reminders of the tsunami in Banda Aceh today, with one glaring exception: a 5,000-ton ship that was hurled into a residential neighborhood roughly 2 kilometers inland. It has become a tourist attraction.

The emotional recovery of the tsunami's orphans hasn't been as complete. Some continue to struggle with loneliness and anger, and flounder in school.

Eight-year-old Arif Munandar lives in a picturesque neighborhood, at the water's edge and ringed by mountains, that has been completely restored with help from international and Indonesian donors.

He lost his parents and two sisters in the tsunami and was later adopted by his mother's sister, Jamilah. They live in a family compound teeming with aunts, uncles and cousins who share three adjacent houses.

Arif has trouble concentrating at school and often gets into scuffles. Jamilah tries to teach him about the Koran, but he doesn't want to listen. "I don't know what to do," she says.

In the immediate aftermath, Arif cried for his mother all the time. It took his aunt a month before she worked up the courage to tell him that his parents were dead.

At his school, rebuilt by Plan International, a British-based nonprofit, 80 percent of the children lost a family member in the tsunami and about a quarter lost a parent.

"Five years later, they've almost forgotten it happened," says Nurhayati, the vice principal. "They look cheerful again."

Only a handful, she said, are still clearly haunted by it, including Arif.

"He's a loner," Nurhayati says. "He daydreams a lot."

The count of 5,200 orphans may seem low, considering more than 100,000 people died in Aceh. That's partly because so many children died, and partly because many were taken in by family and left out of the official statistics.

Most seem to be coping well, says Justin Curry, psycho-social technical adviser for the American Red Cross tsunami recovery program. "The great thing about kids is that they are resilient," he says. "They can handle a tremendous amount."

Many of Aceh's children had already suffered emotional scars from the province's 30-year war of independence, which orphaned many children before the two sides agreed to lay down their arms after the tsunami.

In some ways, coping with the fallout of war helped Aceh deal with the aftermath of the tsunami, says Peter La Raus, Save the Children's chief in Banda Aceh. People had already developed extensive family and social networks to help them deal with hardship.

"The tsunami was devastating, but they didn't have to develop a new social network from scratch," La Raus says.

On the other hand, the tsunami was a new trauma layered over that of war, says Curry of the Red Cross.

"You had a population that was living in a chronically stressful situation and then another major stresser occurred," he says.

Some, like Pipit, live in the Muslim region's many religious boarding schools or orphanages, which proliferated as international aid poured in.

At her orphanage, the 93 females, all of them clad in Muslim head scarves, appear to be well behaved and happy, needing only four adults to supervise the two dormitories. The facilities include a basketball and volleyball court, an outdoor cafe and a mosque.

Pipit's close friend, Intan, chose to live in the orphanage, funded by a Turkish nonprofit, because she found it more appealing than living with her strict grandmother, who took her in after Intan's parents died.

"I can be independent here," says the 13-year-old, who also lost a brother and a sister in the tsunami. "I have lots of sisters here. We study together. We travel together. I didn't have any friends at my grandmother's."

Her choice is not the one favored by international agencies such as UNICEF and Save the Children. They say it is far better for children to stay with extended family than to live in an institution, where staffing is often thin and close relationships with adults are difficult to forge.

The groups have been working with the provincial government to develop closer oversight for orphanages and ensure that children only enter them when absolutely necessary.

On the day of the disaster, hundreds of people sought refuge on the second floor of Sekolah Dasar 20 elementary school, near the center of Banda Aceh. The water rose to within half a meter of them, carrying bicycles, cars and hundreds of dead bodies.

Since then, the school has been rebuilt by World Vision, an American-based nonprofit. It is decorated with artwork made by tsunami victims, part of a Red Cross program aimed at letting children express their sorrow. The paintings show cowering children in front of a crushing wave.

One student, Haurana Aiman, lost both parents. The fifth grader appears to have put those memories behind her. She recently scored second-highest on a school exam.

When she went to her former village, everything was gone: the neighbors, her house, the family photographs.

Five years after the tsunami, she says: "I can still remember my mother's face. She had big eyes. I think I look like her."


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