The Children of the Tsunami

updated 06/13/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the tsunami-ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh, 10-year-old Sufrisah walks, past tents and rubble to a dark, muddy stream, shuts her eyes for a moment, then opens them. "This was the yard of my house. There was a mango tree with a hammock," says Sufrisah, who like many here uses only one name. She bends to pick up a piece of rotting bamboo. "This used to be my swing," she says, adding, I remember we always laughed a lot at home. My daddy liked jokes."

When disaster struck on Dec. 26, Sufrisah and Sufrine, her 20-year-old sister, were home with their father, a fisherman, and their mother, who was hobbled by arthritis. "My mother was sitting fight here under the tree when the earthquake came," Sufrisah says. "Sufrine said, 'Mom, let's run.' But she said, 'I can't—just go and take care of your sister.' My father said he was going to stay and guard Mom. We didn't say goodbye. We just ran." The girls raced up a hill to safety as raging waters swallowed their home and their parents forever. "Everything was gone," she says, clapping her hands together. "Like that."

Around 1,800 children of Aceh have either lost or been separated from one parent; 224 have lost both. That number is fewer than aid groups expected from a disaster that claimed more than 225,000 lives in 11 countries. But the reason for the low number of orphans is not really heartening at all: Of the 130,000 who died in Aceh province, some 50 percent were children. Those who survive are left to wrestle with unimaginable trauma.

"In general, their resilience is high—you wonder what they're repressing," says Frederic Sizaret, the province's child protection officer for UNICEF. For many, he adds, the long-term future is uncertain, given Indonesia's rudimentary child-welfare system. The country has banned international adoption, and though officials and aid agencies do try to connect children with extended family members, there are kids who fall through the cracks. "We'd like to set up a more formal foster care program. And we need to train social workers—only one university in Indonesia does it. These kids are going to need help later on," Sizaret says.

In the meantime Sufrisah and 3,000 kids—orphans as well as others who were affected in some way by the tsunami—visit any of UNICEF's 21 child centers in Aceh. Usually these are tents set up in refugee camps staffed with volunteers. "At the beginning, we were just trying to get the kids playing—acting like kids," says Sizaret. Now the centers, in concert with local organizations, offer sports, games, art, music and massage and dance therapy. On a rotating basis, these groups also bus kids to Lampnuk, once Aceh's finest beach, now strewn with debris—flip-flops, brick shards, shredded clothing, waterlogged TV remotes. The point of the field trip is for terrified children, many of whom once recoiled at the mere sight of the sea, to get used to water again.

On one morning about 200 children swarm Lampnuk in 100° heat. Ten adolescent boys in white shirts sit cross-legged in a row. Shouting "Praise Allah" in Acehnese, they kneel and put lyrics all their own to a Muslim prayer chant. "We got swept by the waves, we got thrown here and thrown there," they sing, before launching into a tune about an angel "with red lips and a beautiful smile" who waits in heaven. Then they jump up and scamper off to join others. All, that is, but Fajari, 13, who lost both his parents. He runs toward the sea. "The water is closer now," he says, uneasily. "I don't want it any closer."

Elsewhere a boom box blares as a cluster of teenage girls in white head-scarves perform a traditional dance—one of the activities designed to draw children out, engage them and perhaps allow them to express their emotions through the arts. "I've been working on this dance for a month," says Yusnita Dewi, 14. She was washing cups after breakfast on Dec. 26 when her mother cried, "It's doom day." Yusnita clung to a tree for hours before being rescued. She lost both her parents, and now she lives with some old neighbors. "The first time I saw her, she just wanted to be left alone," says Gunawan, 22, her dance therapist. It took six weeks to get the girl to the beach. "The worst times are when I'm alone and at night," Yusnita says. "That's when the memories come." The good days come more often now. Later, Yusnita can be heard gabbing with the girls about scarves and caftans she can't afford to buy. "My favorite things," she says, "are being with my friends and dancing."

Many, like 13-year-old Samsul, still struggle. While 15 children take art therapy in a broad white tent, Samsul sits apart and draws near the water's edge. The others chatter and sketch brightly colored trees and other subjects unrelated to the tsunami. But the silent Samsul, an orphan haunted by images of the disaster (see box), uses only black pencil to draw monstrous waves. After 10 minutes, he vanishes into the steamy morning. Two days later, sprawled on a tent floor in his refugee camp watching Tom and Jerry, "I couldn't draw with everyone there," he says of his quick exit. "I wanted to be alone."

Samsul refuses to go to school. Sufrisah, on the other hand, can't wait to get to the tent where she has taken classes since the tsunami destroyed her school. "I like being able to see my friends," says the child, who now shares a room in government barracks with her aunt and five others. Sadly, she has fewer of them—only one-quarter of her schoolmates survived the tsunami, and many are much changed. "You can see by their faces they're not spirited," says Fitria, the principal. "And they're very easily frightened."

Sufrisah fights fear by staying prepared. For the 10-minute walk to school, she insists on carrying two backpacks so she can keep her entire inventory of worldly goods—crayons, sketchbook, her class workbook, skirt, top—close at all times, "so nothing," she says, "can wash them away."

Richard Jerome; Courtney Rubin in Aceh province

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