by Richel Dursin
(IPS) JAKARTA -- The best form of therapy for children is sometimes words of comfort from other children.
With that in mind, the Indonesian government will soon request all elementary students throughout the country and other nations to write letters to traumatized Acehnese children to help them cope with tragic memories of the Dec. 26 tsunami.
"We would like all children to participate in the treatment of Acehnese children suffering from trauma," Seto Mulyadi, chairman of the National Commission for Child Protection, told IPS.
Mulyadi, a renowned child psychologist, pointed out that writing letters to traumatized children would let them feel that "we sympathize and care for them."
"Writing letters to Acehnese children is an effective way of making them overcome their mental suffering," he added.
On Monday, search and rescue teams along the obliterated Sumatran coast reported finding 5,000 more bodies, raising the death toll in Indonesia from one of the world's worst natural disasters to more than 130,000.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who described the calamity as the "most destructive natural disaster in living memory," is scheduled to formally launch the correspondence program between Acehnese students and other children across Indonesia and other nations on Jan. 20.
To encourage many students to participate in the program, the president and his wife, First Lady Kristiani Herawati, will write letters to thousands of Acehnese children staying in refugee camps in the province.
Meanwhile, the government's troops are continuing their crackdown on the Aceh liberation movement, which has caused hundreds of deaths, according to correspondents.
In preparation for the letter-writing launch, the National Commission for Child Protection has made a database of Acehnese children who survived the killer tsunami.
But the database is still incomplete. Not all Acehnese children survivors are on it because some were transported to other relief camps outside the province.
Also, there are claims that a few of the surviving children have fallen prey to child traffickers, as control and monitoring in the province are relatively weak.
To help students in writing their letters, the state-owned post office company, PT Pos Indonesia, will distribute to all schools in the country the names, ages and addresses of children living in tsunami-stricken Aceh.
"We are also asking the media to help publish the data of surviving Acehnese children so that students from other countries could write to them," Mulyadi said.
PT Pos Indonesia will also hand out writing materials to schools throughout the country and refugee centers in Aceh and Medan, North Sumatra, and deliver the letters free of charge. Mailboxes labelled "PO Box Banda Aceh 1" would be put in post offices.
The government expects the children in Aceh, particularly those who can read and write to, respond to their pen pals. "It would take a long time before the Acehnese children could finally recover from their mental trauma, but through letters, we are hoping they would be able to express themselves and slowly overcome the pain," said Arist Merdeka Sirait, secretary general of the National Commission for Child Protection.
In Indonesia, at least 30 percent of the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Acehnese children, orphaned or separated from their parents or other family members in Aceh, are suffering from severe trauma. Most of the Aceh children, traumatized by the catastrophe, lost both parents and other family members and are aged between four and 10, according to the National Commission on Child Protection.
Medical reports revealed that the total number of traumatized Acehnese residents may have doubled to up to 30 percent after the disaster, an increase from 17 percent of people traumatized by the prolonged armed conflict in the province between government forces and the separatist Free Aceh Movement rebels.
The National Commission on Child Protection cited that one girl, who lost her parents to the catastrophe and is staying in a squalid refugee center in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh kept on looking for her mother and screaming, "Mama, Mama!" while another boy refused to drink water -- because it reminded him of the sea.
Other children staying in filthy refugee camps, where corpses were a common sight, are suffering from insomnia, anxiety, confusion, depression, hallucination and delusion, said the commission.
Iskandar, an eight-year-old boy living in a refuge camp in Ujong Batee, some 15 kilometres west of Banda Aceh, said he cannot stop thinking about his parents and two older brothers who were swept away by the tidal wave. According to the commission, aftershocks of the earthquake that triggered the killer wall of water made the children panic and flee into the streets.
"Many of the children in Aceh prefer to live in hills and are scared of the sea," said Mulyadi, who conducted on Jan. 8 a play therapy, which is aimed at helping children in refugee camps in Aceh regain their confidence and eventually lead normal lives.
In one of the hospitals in Cut Meutia, North Aceh, about 25 children whose parents were killed in the disaster were treated for "post-traumatic stress disorder," according to psychiatrist Muhammad Reza Syah.
Syah, the only psychiatrist in Cut Meutia, said most of the children informed him that they repeatedly dreamt of huge waves and often heard cries of people looking for their loved ones.
When the psychiatrist asked the children to make illustrations as a form of therapy, one of them just drew an Indonesian flag and explained that the country's red and white flag was the only thing spared from the disaster. Another child drew scores of people asking for help while one more illustrated a sea and described that the "sea ate many people."
"We should pay serious attention to survivors suffering from adverse psychological and emotional effects of the disaster," Syah said.
At present, about 600 students in Solo, East Java who have been informed about the correspondence program by the National Commission on Child Protection are ready to send letters to surviving Acehnese children.
In Jakarta, many primary students have expressed their interest to write letters to Acehnese children and wanted to be regarded as their friends.
"I want to send letters to children in Aceh and I hope to cheer them up," said seven-year-old Ananda.
"In my letters to Acehnese kids, I am going to tell that I always pray for them and wish that they would be able to study again," said Argya, a grade one pupil.
According to Minister of National Education Bambang Sudibyo, over 420 schools in Aceh were wiped out by the tsunami disaster and more than 1,200 teachers in the predominantly Muslim province died.
In order for Acehnese children to resume their studies, the Ministry of National Education stressed that makeshift schools in 95 areas near refugee camps are being set up and would start functioning from Jan. 26.
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