Cuddalore/Chennai: The group takes in its fold the three sisters who are grieving the loss of their mother and brother. As they skip rope, their minds fully concentrated on the co-ordination between the movement of their feet and the rope, they are cheered by the group. A little later, one of the children is blindfolded and the rest of them run so as not to be caught, the sisters run as hard as the others. As we begin to talk, Vineeta, Anita and Poorna Rasi are identified as the only unlucky ones in village Pettoda in Cuddalore district to have lost two members of their family. The girls remain silent, but others speak on their behalf, and they speak with sympathy and love. “We feel very bad for them. We make sure they are always with us when we play,” says Reethika, one of the older girls.
The bodies of the girls’ mother and brother were found 40 kilometres away. “We can not sleep…our mother would help us go to sleep at night,” says 11 years old Vineeta, the eldest of the three. The girls are now living in their grandmother’s house. Their father was away on Thursday to Parangpettai, the village where the bodies were found. However, the girls have found strength and solace in being with other children. “I enjoy playing with them,” says 10 years old Anita.
Children in the village always played together. However, after the tsunami struck and the village was drowned in wails of sorrow, children stopped playing and were engulfed in the grief of adults and their own. With houses destroyed and the fear of another tsunami forcing them to sleep in public areas away from the sea, the fun of being children was lost. “We were scared and very sad,” says Padman, a boy from Cuddalore. Worse, even schools were closed and children had nowhere to else to spend their time. As life went on in the coastal villages of Tamil Nadu, the scars inflicted by the disaster were just not healing with time. “Time heals if children return to a normal life. UNICEF saw an immediate need for helping children in healing their lives,” says UNICEF State Representative for Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Tim Schaffter.
UNICEF, with full support and encouragement from the Secretary, Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme, Mr. L.N. Vijayaraghwan, will start psycho-social interventions in all the affected areas of Tamil Nadu in order to quicken and aid the process of healing for children. In this initiative, UNICEF is partnering with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) and the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS), a youth volunteer movement, which has a strong presence in the community. In the next few weeks, trained NYKS volunteers will work with all the children in the affected villages of Tamil Nadu. Simultaneously, UNICEF is also training teachers to identify signs of trauma in children and help them in the process of healing.
Explaining the reasons for starting immediately, Mr. Schaffter says that interaction with children and community provided evidence of deep-seated trauma. “Many children were found to be aloof – particularly those whose parents, siblings or friends had died. Some of the older children were reported to have started bedwetting, which is a clear sign of trauma,” he said.
In village Pettoda, for instance, some children were reported to be lying awake all night, while many had difficulties sleeping. Their healing has begun with trained volunteers drawing them out of their broken homes and getting them to play. As village adults discuss cleaning up and rebuilding, children are taken out to a large field across the village street where they play cricket, rubber rings and other games they enjoy. “The response is tremendous…there is not a single child in the village who does not play,” says Mani, the NYKS District Youth Co-ordinator. In 10 days, he expects to cover the 40 of the 50 tsunami-affected villages of the district. In other districts, youth volunteers are starting similar initiatives.
Children love these games. Anbazhar, a resident of Sonakupam village says it is “reassuring” to hear the laughter of children. “It gives us hope that all is not lost and there is a life ahead,” he says. The village has lost more than 60 lives, half of them being children.
As children leave relief camps where many of them are at the moment, volunteers will track them in their villages and continue to be with them. Mr. Schaffter says that if some children need care and support over a longer period of time, UNICEF will ensure it is provided. “We are with them till they are fully rehabilitated,” he said.