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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Working to reunite families fragmented by the tsunami

© UNICEF video
Muhammad Nurwansyah, aged 10, watches television with other tsunami survivors at a camp for the displaced.

By Steve Nettleton

JANTHO, Indonesia, December 2005 – Sitting among a group of fellow survivors of the tsunami, 10-year-old Muhammad Nurwansyah laughs at the antics of an Indonesian comic performing on the television. It’s an uneventful Sunday afternoon at this camp for the displaced in Jantho, about an hour’s drive from Banda Aceh. But routine is good. It’s a sign that life is getting back to normal for this boy, who still struggles with painful memories of the tsunami one year ago and its aftermath.

Muhammad, who goes by the nickname Iwan, was staying with his grandparents when the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004. After the disaster, he found himself alone, not knowing whether anyone in his family had survived.

He was so traumatized he couldn’t describe his parents or remember his address. He spent seven weeks in a camp until, by a stroke of luck, he was riding in a car through his old neighborhood and recognized his house. Neighbours told social workers that his parents were staying at a relief camp in the city and Iwan was reunited with them two days later.

Today, Iwan helps his mother run a small kiosk at the displacement camp in Jantho. He spends his days going to school and often plays at a UNICEF-supported children’s centre a few kilometers away. When he comes home, he gives his mother a hand taking care of chores around their temporary home.

© UNICEF video
Muhammad Nurwansyah helps his mother Hayatun Nafis run a small kiosk at the displacement camp in Jantho.

“I like to help my mother, whatever she asks me to do,” he explains. “I like to help washing the clothes, then I help washing the plates as well in the evening, and carry the stuff into my mother’s kiosk.”

His mother, Hayatun Nafis, said she still feels overjoyed by the return of her son, though she knows he has not fully recovered from the trauma and the separation.

“When Iwan came back and I could hold him in my arms again, I always tried my best to calm him,” she says. “I try to help him get rid of the trauma, I try to fulfill what he wants, wherever he asks to play around, I let him go and watch over him from behind.”

But Iwan’s return is tempered by the absence of his grandparents and two siblings: Iwan’s 11-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister are still missing. His mother said she still holds out hope they are alive.

The process of identifying separated and unaccompanied children and reuniting them with family members still continues one year after the tsunami.

UNICEF, the Indonesian government and Indonesian and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working together to register children, and provide psychological and emotional support for those still searching for their families.

If their immediate family members can’t be found, social workers try to put the children in touch with other relatives.

“For the ones who won’t be able to be reunified, we are starting a fostering program to put these children back in their community and to make an adequate follow up with the Ministry of Social Affairs,” said UNICEF’s head of office for Banda Aceh, Edouard Beigbeder.

In addition to registering and tracing children, UNICEF supports 21 children’s centres across Aceh and North Sumatra. One year after the tsunami, these centres are still providing recreation activities, education and psycho-social support to around 17,000 children and young people.




UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on UNICEF’s efforts to reunite families fragmented by the tsunami.

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