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Helping communities heal

© UNICEF Malaysia/2005/Nadchatram
Hafiz Firdaus remembers his two sisters who died in the tsunami while his mother Roslah Saad looks on.

KUALA MUDA KEDAH, 21 May 2005 - SIX-year-old Hafiz Fitri will show visitors the scar on his arm, but he prefers to allow his elder brother, Hafiz Firdaus recount how they were both "sinking and floating in the mud" when giant waves hit their grandfather's house. Whenever anyone asks about his scar, Fitri just answers "tsunami".

"They are not scared… they still play and swim in the sea. But when it rains at night, or if there are strong winds, Fitri will ask if the tsunami is coming," said their mother Roslah Saad who lost her two youngest daughters. "Sometimes, they look at their sisters' toys and ask about them. But they do not always talk about them.”

Roslah recalls having to leave her 11-month-old baby in the mud because they had to rush their injured children to the hospital. "She was already gone, and we could not do anything more. I kept calling for the other children. My knees were weak, and I was so afraid,” relates Roslah, about the fateful day and the week she spent nursing her two children in the hospital. Fitri was discharged, but her five-year-old daughter succumbed to her injuries.

Roslah appears composed and accepting of her daughters’ deaths, but she is still struggling to come to terms with her devastating loss. "When the boys are in school, and the housework is all done, and I am all alone at home, I think of my daughters and I miss them terribly. You don't know when the sadness will hit you. Sometimes, when I cook something and remember that it is my daughter's favourite food, I get so sad. But my husband always tell me to be sabar (strong)."

She seeks comfort and strength in their tight-knit community of friends and relatives. As Muslims, Roslah and the other villagers who lost their loved ones accept that their loss is God's will.

"We pray a lot, and read the Quran. If we are not sabar, we will go mad," said 59-year-old Baharum bin Abu Bakar who lost his wife.

Fisherman Saiful Azahari Sabdin however finds it hard to talk about his 15-year-old sister Susanna’s death. He gets teary-eyed as he listens to the other villagers recall how affable and friendly the teenager was. “We are thankful our 19-month-old son who was with Susanna that day survived,” said his wife Roslida Awang who confides that their happiness is tinged with guilt. Saiful still cannot bear to go by the destroyed house.

UNICEF recognised that the villagers needed help dealing with the magnitude and suddenness of the loss they suffered, and almost immediately mobilised a team of counsellors and psychologists to conduct a post trauma stress disorder (PTSD) assessment. The team found that while traditional mechanisms of coping enable some to manage their pain, there were some who require professional help. Furthermore, some of those affected may only exhibit PTSD symptoms much later after the tragedy.

Seeking professional psychological help is alien in Asian societies, and even more so for simple village folks. Still, villagers who took part in the initial assessment exercise said they benefited from the opportunity to talk about their experience of the tsunami.

"We have to address this need because affected people do not always develop PTSD symptoms immediately. We need to ensure that they have access to professional help to deal with their trauma," said psychologist Dr Goh Chee Leong of HELP University College.
UNICEF is working with Government agencies and other partners like HELP University College to develop long-term mental health support services for tsunami survivors in Malaysia.

"One of our approaches is to train local teachers, health workers, social workers and other community leaders on how to counsel and deal with PTSD. We will also embark on a community education program to teach locals how to identify symptoms of PTSD, and how to access support services.The community should be aware of psychological problems that could arise. We need to change perception so that people will think that it is normal to seek counselling," said Dr Goh, stressing that the support services have to be long term.



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