By Nattha Keenapan
YANGON, Myanmar, 5 June 2008 – At the offices of the Yangon Kayin Baptist Women’s Association, a room once used for storing office equipment and documents is now filled with laughing and playing children, all of whom were displaced by the devastation of Cyclone Nargis.
Since Nargis swept across the Irrawaddy Delta on 2 May, the former storage space has served as a playground for some 250 children. Approximately half of the people who have taken refuge at the women’s association centre in Yangon are children.
At one end of the room, boys play a spirited game of football, while at the other end small children try to knock over miniature bowling pins with plastic balls. In other parts of the room, tired mothers read stories to sleepy toddlers, a group of girls draw and paint pictures, and children gather to sing together.
A sense of stability
With UNICEF support, this storage room turned playground is one of the many ‘child-friendly spaces’ now operating in Myanmar. These locations are designed to serve as safe and protective places for children in times of emergency.
The spaces provide children and young people with a sense of stability and support, while at the same time assisting them in overcoming their distress.
Saw Leh Ler Shee, 12, in Laputta township, has not been able to locate his parents and siblings since Cyclone Nargis struck on 2 May.
“I like playing football the most,” said Saw Leh Ler Shee, a 12-year-old boy from Laputta township who fears that he lost a brother, a sister and both of his parents in the cyclone. “I like it here. I don’t want to go back to the village anymore because many people died and there will be a lot of ghosts there.”
Just before the cyclone hit, Ler Shee set out for the grocery store to buy some things for his mother – but he never managed to get there. The relentless wind and rain forced him to take refuge at a neighbour’s house, which was soon destroyed by a surge of water. Ler Shee managed to survive by clinging to a tree until the next morning.
Children cope with stress
“I saw many dead bodies, dead cattle and debris everywhere,” the boy said, bravely recounting those terrifying hours. His sad eyes showed a true glimpse into the events he had witnessed. “I went back home and saw that my house had collapsed. I tried to find my mother but I couldn’t,” he added.
Unable to find anyone from his family, he walked for an hour to a nearby village, where a boat came to pick him up along with other survivors in the area. He was taken to a temporary, church-managed shelter where he met his aunt and grandmother. They, in turn, brought him to the women’s association centre.
“It is terrible to imagine what these children have gone through,” said UNICEF Myanmar Chief of Child Protection Anne-Claire Dufay. “We are very concerned about the emotional stress faced by children who have been caught up in the aftermath of the cyclone.”
Recreation and education
The United Nations estimates that 2.4 million people have been severely affected by Cyclone Nargis. UNICEF estimates that of those affected, about 40 per cent – or nearly 1 million – are children.
“In any situation where you have children living under extremely stressful conditions, both physically and mentally, it is important to provide them with a place where they can feel safe and are well cared for,” said Ms. Dufay. “Such a place can help them begin to return to a bit more of a normal life and start the process of recovering from what has happened to them.”
In addition to engaging in recreational activities, children at the child-friendly spaces learn life skills. Non-formal education activities such as reading and writing instruction are provided as well.
“It was touching to see these children playing, enjoying themselves and smiling – these same children who only a few days ago had only blank stares and looked withdrawn and bored,” said UNICEF Child Protection Officer Uzma Hoque, who has been helping to set up child-friendly spaces.
Hopeful for a reunion
As of 27 May, UNICEF and its partners had established 30 child-friendly spaces in temporary shelters and communities in the Yangon and Irrawaddy Divisions, and another 60 spaces were in the process of being set up.
To date, more than 230 separated children and 50 unaccompanied children have been documented. Relatives registered another 60 as missing missing children at the Myanmar Red Cross office in Laputta township. Along with Myanmar’s Department of Social Welfare and several non-governmental organizations, UNICEF is working on tracing family members and following up on family reunification.
Although no one can yet confirm whether Ler Shee’s parents or siblings are alive, he hopes that one day soon he will be reunited again.
“I have a lot of new friends here, but I still miss my family, especially my sister,” he said. “Sometimes I cry before I go to bed because I miss them.”