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Indonesian Children Go Back to School

In Aceh, Teacher Stresses Unity and Optimism To Classroom Crowded With Tsunami Survivors

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; Page A14

ACEH BESAR, Indonesia, Jan. 11 -- A teacher at the Lampeunerut Elementary School, Nur Hayati, invited children to the chalkboard on Tuesday to write anything they wanted. One wrote his name. Another drew a boat.

Andreansyah, 8, sat at his desk and also drew a boat. When the earthquake and tsunami hit, he said, "there were many boats in the sea." They were all destroyed, but he wanted to see them all sailing on the sea once more.

Acehnese children attend school at a refugee camp in Banda Aceh, on Sumatra, the island hit hardest by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Teachers, school officials and relief workers have opened schools in an attempt to restore normality to the lives of Indonesian children. (Photos Kim Kyung-hoon -- Reuters)

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The children were among more than 100 students who returned to the school this week, packed into overcrowded classrooms. Lampeunerut was one of a few emergency schools that reopened in Aceh province, an attempt by parents, school officials and relief workers to restore a measure of normality to the children's lives.

At least 30,000 Indonesian children died, and more than 1,140 teachers were confirmed dead in the Dec. 26 earthquake that unleashed a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. More than 100,000 people were killed in Sumatra, mostly in Aceh province. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless.

This school sustained minor damage, said the deputy principal, Mustafa, beaming as children streamed into two classrooms and a tent.

Most of the students who attended the school before the disaster have fled the area, fearing another earthquake or tsunami, he said. Many of the children here come from schools that were flattened or washed away.

"We feel proud to take them," said Mustafa, who uses only one name. "These are the sons and daughters of our brothers. We are one religion. We are one land. We welcome them."

Some of the children who arrived for class on Tuesday were living in tents on the school grounds. Others were crammed into rooms in the school building, each packed with bundles of food and clothing and sheltering as many as 60 men, women and children.

The children wore sarongs, T-shirts and shorts picked out of piles of cast-off clothes. One 8-year-old girl bounced into class wearing blue-and-white pajamas.

"Though we may not have books or clothes, though our schoolbag is drenched with seawater, let it be," said Nur Hayati, who uses only her first name, raising her voice above the din of the children. "God will provide."

Nur Hayati welcomed the students to a combined class of first, second and third graders. Groups of four children squeezed onto benches built for two. And still, there were not enough seats.

Gliding around the room, wearing a lavender head scarf and tunic, Nur Hayati kept up a steady rhythm of song, call-and-response and simple activity. She stressed unity and optimism.

"These," she said, holding up her hand, "are my five fingers. If you want to eat, you have to make them work together," she said, referring to the Indonesian practice of eating food with one's hands.

"Can we eat with just one finger?" she asked.

"Yes! Yes!" the children shouted in response.

"No," she said. "Well, yes, you can. But it's not as easy as with five. That's why you have to make your fingers work together."

Nur Hayati said many children were traumatized by the tsunami, but that she had seen problems like this before. A few years ago, when the long-running conflict between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists intensified, she worked with pupils who had lost a father, brother or uncle to the violence.

This time, she said, the trauma was likely to be greater, because entire families were killed.

School is "cool," said Andreansyah, the boy who drew the boat picture at his desk. He wore an orange National Football League T-shirt and bounced around ceaselessly. He said he wanted to go to school to be smart and then grow up to be a policeman "so I can shoot people."

"You'll die before that happens," said Muhajirin, 9, who lost his parents, brother and sister in the tsunami. He said he missed his old school and was sad "because I had my mother and father and my best friend."

Some of the older children, who attend class in a tent on the schoolyard, also yearned for their old school and real classes.

"The subjects are not serious here -- we only sing and draw," said Fitri Handayani, a pretty 14-year-old with a ponytail and bright eyes. "I'd like to have my old school back, but I don't want to go back home." That would bring her too close to death. In her village, only 170 of 1,000 people survived, she said. Her father was among the dead.

Officials said the emergency school would probably run for more than one month, while the government readies camps for villagers who have nowhere else to go. Many more schools are expected to open in the coming weeks.

"In the long run, they'll rebuild homes and schools and maybe relocate some villages," Mustafa said.

In the short term, he'll take in any student who needs a classroom. As his regular students return, he said, everyone will have to adjust.

After school, in a classroom-turned-shelter, Mahdi, 9, smiled shyly when asked what he thought of his school day and rested his head on his mother's lap. His father and older brother are dead.

"Before school started, many children seemed unhappy, sitting around, daydreaming," said his mother, Nurni, while seated on a straw mat.

Nearby, one of her daughters dozed on another mat. The odor of chilies and frying cabbage filled the room. "With school open, at least they have something to look forward to," Nurni said.

Her eyes were tired and sad. She wiped away tears when she spoke of her dead husband and son. She did not know whether sending Mahdi and his twin brother, Mahfud, to class was helping them cope with the tragedy.

"I cannot think about anything at the moment," she said. "All I know is the best thing for them is to be in school."

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company