By Edward Carwardine
JAKARTA, Indonesia – Less than a week ago, the children of Padang, in Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, were standing amidst the devastation of an earthquake that had destroyed buildings, caused massive landslides, blocked roads and shattered the water supply.
They talked to aid workers of their fears: that more shocks would hit the town, that their homes – if still standing – would fall, that their lives would forever be changed for the worse.
Today, they walk to school by the thousands.
Education authorities in Padang say that nearly 70,000 children turned up for classes today, comprising some 40 per cent of the provincial capital’s school-age population. Surrounded by the debris, faced by collapsed school rooms, with bodies still believed to be lost under the concrete and cement, the lines of children in neat white uniforms underline a determination that is almost beyond understanding – a determination that no amount of devastation will prevent them from living their lives again.
In three of Padang’s schools, UNICEF has already delivered temporary classrooms in the form of school tents. Willing volunteers spent the weekend putting them in place. In one, a white-coated physics teacher now stands amongst some 60 children, a microphone in one hand, attempting to teach physics to what he believes are three different Grade 10 groups.
For UNICEF Education Officer Amson Simbolon, the crowds of young people back in their schools, even if under canvas, are a reminder of the importance of quickly re-establishing routine for those affected by sudden emergencies.
“These children are seeking reassurances, looking for comfort in the normal daily activities that they enjoyed before last week’s quake,” he said. “Bringing in school tents, and school equipment, is not just about re-starting education. It’s about providing a new focus for these children, one which is not only on the destruction and loss that surrounds them.”
UNICEF is bringing 250 school tents into West Sumatra, along with School-in-a-Box kits, each providing basic classroom materials for about 80 students. In addition, 60 recreation kits are being delivered to help provide therapeutic play activities for those worst affected by the quake.
Threats to children
But amidst the optimism over education, UNICEF remains concerned about other threats to West Sumatra’s children. Water supplies have been disrupted, and sanitation facilities are limited in some areas. The risk of water-borne disease hangs over every community touched by the earthquake.
To help ensure families’ access to clean water, huge water storage bladders are being dispatched, along with jerry cans and water purification materials. Hygiene information campaigns are also being planned to further reduce the potential for disease outbreaks.
In the village of Kampung Dalam, about 70 km from Padang, residents have found a well that is still producing water. With help from the community, UNICEF quickly set up a water bladder. Within an hour, clean water was on tap again. Immediately, people gathered around, well-aware of the importance of safeguarding their health.
Having survived the quake of 30 September, to fall prey to diarrhoeal disease would be nothing less than a second tragedy.
Rebuilding life in Indonesia’s West Sumatra will take time and considerable energy. But watching the people of Kampung Dalam gather around the flowing water, or peering into the over-flowing school tents of Padang, the indications are positive. With the right support, there is every chance of success, despite the magnitude of the disaster that struck just a few days ago.
Watch UNICEF Representative in Indonesia
Angela Kearney talks about the importance of getting earthquake-affected children back to school.