PALU, Indonesia: “Earthquake! Tsunami! Run! Run! Run!” A little boy shouted out a warning to his friends inside a temporary shelter in Palu.
Screams filled the tent as everyone ran around, laughing excitedly at the game they played.
Seeing their broad smiles, playful eyes and impish glee, some may find it hard to believe those children were survivors of one of the worst disasters to have hit Indonesia. All of them had lost their home to a 7.5-magnitude earthquake that struck Sulawesi and triggered a tsunami on Sep 28.
The double disaster mostly affected the provincial capital Palu and nearby Donggala. More than 2,000 lives were lost and close to 90,000 people displaced, including some 30 children taking refuge on the lawn of Central Sulawesi’s Social Affairs Office.
“Our goal is to help these children forget the horrible experience they’ve just been through,” said Karina Sidik from the Ministry of Social Affairs. Behind her, rows of colourful drawings hung from strings. Animals. Flowers. Mountains. A small yellow house under a clear blue sky.
A girl smiles during a game with other children displaced by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Sulawesi on Sep 28, 2018. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
The 26-year-old was one of 10 social workers who ran the ministry’s psycho-social support programme for children affected by the recent disaster. A total of 15 support centres are set to be built in Palu and Donggala with help from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other child protection groups. So far, four have been set up, each with social workers who spend several hours a day with the young ones as they draw, sing and play.
The activities were part of the therapy designed to restore their happiness and social skills after their everyday life was disrupted by the disaster.
A girl laughs as she plays with her friends. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Still, some children were still traumatised by what they had been through. “I’m still scared,” a four-year-old girl told Channel NewsAsia. The quake destroyed her family’s eatery while her home in the neighbourhood of Petobo was also buried by mud from soil liquefaction.
When the earthquake damaged the restaurant, a dish rack fell on her and left bright red marks on her face. Although nearly two weeks have passed since the incident, the little girl still jumps every time she hears a loud noise, thinking another quake has struck.
“Children are the most vulnerable group of people in any disaster. Their routine abruptly stops and they need help to restore it in order to move on,” said another social worker Ramadhani Sri Handayani.
But some are coping better than others.
“I’m not afraid of earthquakes anymore,” said a seven-year-old boy with a grin. “We’ve learnt a song about earthquakes.”
Taught by social workers, the song was about how children should react when an earthquake strikes. Its lyrics say they should protect their heads, stay away from glass and run as fast as they can.
Colourful origami birds hung on strings inside a tent. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Since the programme started on Oct 1, Sidik said fear has begun to slip away from many children. They tend to remain calm when feeling an aftershock instead of running away like before.
According to the National Disaster Management Agency, 522 aftershocks have been detected since the Sep 28 earthquake.
Besides providing psycho-social support, the Ministry of Social Affairs also helps separated family members to reunite with their loved ones.
Data collected by the Ministry of Social Affairs shows 74 children have gone missing since the earthquake hit Sulawesi. Three yougsters were successfully reunited with their family and another one is about to meet his parents.
“Parents have asked for updates about their missing children. But now that the search is called off, many of them have lost hope,” Sidik said.
“They said they’ve already surrendered to God.”
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