27 January 2005: Restoring hope for children after the tsunami
By Steen Andersen (Secretary-General, Danish Committee for UNICEF)
PETTODA, India, 27 January 2005 - It was 6:30 Sunday morning on 26 December in the village of Pettoda, about 250 km south of Chennai in India. Father, mother, three sisters, and a small brother were sleeping in their house made of clay and palm leaves. The house was about 200 metres from the shoreline.
When I visited Pettoda on 6 January, just 10 days later, there was no house. This family by the huge wave that hit not just India, but also Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Somalia, Myanmar, and Malaysia.
Upon first arriving in Pettoda, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Outside the village, children were playing soccer, skipping rope, laughing and having fun. But this play had a purpose: It was part of a UNICEF-supported programme to provide psychological help to children, many of whom have lost family members and friends. Very soon I sensed that the situation of these children was incredibly difficult.
Three sisters (Vineeta, 11, Anita, 10, and Poorna Risi, just eight years old) held hands as they told me their story. They and their father were the only survivors from the family in the house at the beach. Their mother, Giria, and their little brother, seven-year-old Vinod, were taken by the tsunami when it hit their house with full force. The wave plunged 800 metres inland. It destroyed 70 of the 201 houses in the village, and dragged people, animals, fishing boats and houses out into the sea.
One of the sisters was pulled out by the wave, but miraculously the water carried her back to the beach. Her mother and her little brother never returned. Their father survived, but neighbours told me he went mad with grief, and is now unable to take care of his daughters.
I asked the girls to show me their house. Together we went to the devastated village. As we reached the location of the house, we saw...nothing. There was nothing left to see. Everything had been swept away.
Most of the victims were children
During my visit to India’s province of Tamil Nadu, I met many children who are now enduring similar circumstances. In the Pettoda area, more than 660 people were killed – most of them children. Some 55 villages were damaged or destroyed, 3,000 houses were ruined and more than 50,000 people had to flee their homes.
UNICEF has a special responsibility to help in situations like this. With field offices in almost 160 countries, UNICEF is always there when a disaster strikes, which makes it possible to start relief efforts immediately. This was the case in India after the tsunami; I was happy and proud to see what a positive difference UNICEF has made, even in the midst of disaster.
Everywhere I went I saw UNICEF water tanks. A total of 480 tanks had been delivered, and were constantly refilled with fresh drinking water. In just two days, the combined efforts of the Indian authorities and UNICEF resulted in the immunization of 10,000 children against measles (deadly epidemics could easily kill as many children as were killed by the tsunami itself). While being immunized, the children also received vitamin A shots, which help to prevent malnutrition.
In Pudduchetram village, we saw children lined up in front of a small building, waiting to be immunized. The building had been flooded by the tsunami and had to be emptied of mud before it could function as a local health post.
While I was there, a mother came with her four-month-old baby, Danush. The child was hot with fever, apathetic, and suffering from diarrhoea, a very common result of poor sanitary conditions. The child was treated with oral rehydration salts provided by UNICEF – a cheap and simple treatment that prevents children from dying when body fluids are drained from their bodies by diarrhoeal diseases.
In two days, 200 children were immunized in Pudduchetram village. A small black dot was painted on their fingernails to confirm that they had been immunized. The ones who did not come by themselves or with their parents to the health post were picked up in their homes, or in the relief camps.
Undoubtedly, the experiences from my trip which affected me the most were my meetings with children who have lost everything and everyone. But I am also deeply impressed that the relief effort was implemented so quickly. This saved the lives of many children. So far the outbreak of major epidemics has been avoided and people are not dying from hunger or thirst.
I am deeply grateful to all our donors – private as well as corporate and foundations – who have made it possible for UNICEF to deliver immediate help in large quantities and also to begin the long-term rebuilding of communities that have lost everything, restoring hope to the lives of many thousands of children.
The extensive, heartfelt support from our donors gives me hope too – hope that children like Vineeta, Anita, and Poorna Risi will return to a life worth living.