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Indonesia Acts to Protect Orphans

Officials, Teachers Move to Stop Smugglers From Taking Advantage of Chaos

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A01

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 8 -- The first night, when she was on the mountain, Sri Nurlita cried. The 10-year-old wept for her parents, who were taken by the "big water" that swept through her village, for the way they used to stroke her head at night until she fell asleep.

But two weeks after the tsunami triggered by an earthquake killed not only her mother and father but also seven of her 12 brothers and sisters, Sri said: "I don't cry anymore."

An Indonesian official registers the young survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami. The United Nations estimates 1.5 million children were affected by the waves, many losing parents. (Dimas Ardian -- Getty Images)

"I'm sad, but I can't do anything," she said, her chestnut eyes luminous and a bare foot swinging back and forth on a bunk bed in her new home, Babun Najah, an Islamic boarding school a half mile from a relief camp for tsunami survivors.

"In the name of God, the most powerful," she prayed in Arabic in a sweet high voice, remembering the way her father taught her the Koran. Her voice trailed off, her eyes misted and she looked away.

"When I pray, I remember my parents," she said, "and after I pray, I feel better."

The United Nations reports that the tsunami affected 1.5 million children, many of whom, like Sri, lost one or both parents. The death toll from the disaster rose to more than 150,000 people in 11 countries Saturday, including at least 104,055 in Indonesia.

Teachers at the school said they had heard reports that child traffickers were taking advantage of the chaos. To prevent smuggling, the teachers decided to open up space in their dormitory for girls who had lost their families or whose parents wanted them to stay in a safer environment than a relief camp set up on the outskirts of town.

UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, has confirmed at least one case of trafficking in Aceh province, on the hard-hit island of Sumatra, and Indonesian authorities are looking into dozens of similar allegations. To prevent such abuse, the Indonesian government imposed restrictions on the movement of children; these include preventing children younger than 16 from leaving Aceh unless they are with their parents or registered with authorities.

Until Friday, Sri and 71 other girls had taken refuge at the muddy relief camp, where several thousand people were jammed into sweltering tents made of tarps on wooden stakes. One tent housed 164 family members.

The girls then moved to the school. On their first night there, they refused to sleep in the dormitory. They preferred the unfinished mosque, with half-built walls and a corrugated metal roof. They slept on mats on the cement floor, the cool night air breezing through.

"They're afraid of earthquakes," said Muzakir, 29, a teacher who lives at the school.

Intermittently on Saturday afternoon, the skies opened, thunder clapped and rain pelted the dorm roof, turning the schoolyard into a mud bath. A young girl began to cry. She had been told the relief camp she had just left, where her parents were, was flooded. She feared they would drown.

"Mukramit, why were you crying?" asked Iin, another teacher, wearing a long white head scarf and at 19, barely older than the girls crowding around her in the dorm room.

Iin gathered her charges around her. Sitting on the floor, she began to call out questions.

"Who eats while walking?" she prompted.

"A goat!" the girls shouted, laughing. "Tell us a story!" they urged.

So the teacher began: "I told you last night that our parents, our brothers, our sisters belong to God. We're not supposed to cry. We're supposed to pray."

"Oh God, forgive us our sins and our parents' sins," the children chanted in unison, holding out their arms, palms turned up.

"Prayer is the magic potion to conquer your sorrow," Iin said.

Sri fixed her sad eyes on the teacher, hanging on her every word.

"So if your parents are dead, do not cry," Iin said. "It is natural. You have to be brave. Do you understand?"

"We understand," the girls said.

Iin tried to get the girls to talk about their experiences on the day the water rose, but no one wanted to speak.

The teacher went first: "On the 26th of December, I was at school to monitor exams. And the gods shook the earth. I sensed something was wrong. I tried chanting God's name. A car outside collapsed. Another tremor shook the building."

Iin told the girls that the earthquake was a warning from God.

Eventually, the girls scampered off to wash for dinner. Sri sat on a bunk bed and pulled talcum powder out of a light-blue backpack, which contained everything she had left. A blue dress she had received at the relief camp. The blue and orange sweat pants she was wearing the Sunday morning the tsunami hit.

She dusted her face with powder, lifting a slender wrist encircled by a silver bangle that she said her father had helped her buy. In place of her mother, her cousin Lina, 12, had carefully braided Sri's ponytail.

Iin watched approvingly as the girls busied themselves. "I'm trying to comfort the children," she said. "Once you open up and talk about bad things, it will help them release the pain. But once you've eased the burden, you must move on."

Muzakir, the other teacher, said he did not think it was necessary to find adoptive families for the girls. The school, some of whose students come from the same village as Sri's, offers a ready-made social network and familiar community, he said.

"We don't need a psychiatrist," Muzakir said, leaning against a wardrobe in the dorm. "This is more than a trauma center. Here, we learn how to relate to and connect with each other."

Like many of the girls, Sri was at her elementary school on the small island of Pulau Aceh, off the northwest coast of Aceh, on the morning the wall of water rose. Of 6,500 people on Pulau Aceh, half reportedly died.

"Run! Run!" the teachers said. And Sri ran. When she reached high ground, she found her friends Nilawati, also 10, and Siti Rawati, 11. All three girls lost their parents.

They spent three days and nights on the mountain with other survivors, eating coconut, bananas and sweet potato. On the fourth day, village elders led the survivors down to the sea and ferried them on three boats to the mainland, where they were taken to the relief camp.

On Saturday night at the school, dinner was rice, doled out of a blue plastic bucket, hard-boiled eggs and potatoes with coconut milk. Then it was time for the final evening prayer.

The girls washed. They donned long, white head-coverings that reached almost to their ankles.

Sri, her head scarf nearly swallowing her, mouthed words from the Koran.

That night, the girls said they wanted to sleep in the mosque again. They retrieved pillows and blankets from the dorm room and placed them on mats on the floor.

Sri nestled in, her cousin to her right and Nilawati to her left. She would sleep between them now. She would remember how her parents used to stroke her hair.

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.

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