Coming to terms with loss and tragedy
By Robert Few
PHANG NGA, June 2005 – At first glance, Baan Bang Muang School in Thailand’s Phang Nga Province looks as if it escaped lightly from the tsunami. There is no obvious damage to buildings and classes are being held as normal. But 51 children from this school died in the disaster and another 47 were orphaned. The loss of loved ones and friends still scars the pupils here.
Jaree is one of those pupils. A bright sociable child, she was devastated by the loss of her mother, who was drowned. She now lives in a one-room temporary house with two brothers and her father, who was injured in the tsunami and is too sick to work. Her youngest brother had to go through the terrifying ordeal of holding on to driftwood for eight hours before he was found.
Their fellow pupil, Panupong, has a story just as sad. His father died in the tsunami. Just one month later, he was forced to cope with death again when his mother passed away. Now he has to help his aunt rebuild her house so that he and his sister can have somewhere to live.
Jaree and Panupong lived in the fishing village of Baan Nam Khem, where some 1,500 people died, including 500 children. Although permanent houses and fishing boats are now being rebuilt here, the psychological scars will take a lifetime to heal.
These activities bring together children who have been affected by the tsunami and children who have not so that friends can lend support to those who have suffered.
“Before the sessions, my nephew said he wanted to kill himself because his mother was dead,” said Kanda Thanmathato, one of the teachers at Bang Muang School, who has had to hide her own grief in order to offer encouragement to her students.
“But after the counseling sessions, he said he no longer wanted to kill himself because he realized there are still people who care about him. He is feeling much better now and wants to spend time with his friends and work hard at his studies.”
Principal Jitdee Thongsaen has also been impressed by the counseling. “I’m no psychiatrist, but I can see the beneficial effect these sessions have had on the children,” he said. “After the tsunami, the children here were very depressed and listless. But now the whole atmosphere of the school has improved.”
As well as sadness, the children of Baan Bang Muang School have also had to overcome their fear. The sound of sirens could be heard for days after the disaster, and every time an ambulance or police car went by, the children thought it meant another tsunami.
“We had to reassure them all the time that tsunamis are not something that happens every day – that they can’t come as easily as that,” said Kanda Thanmathato.
In total, UNICEF has supported psychosocial activities for 150,000 children. We are also providing sports and recreational equipment to around 800 schools serving 141,000 children. The recovery process will not be quick, but counseling and playing with friends are steps along the path to psychosocial healing.
Kanda Thanmathato explained: “You can’t tell the children to forget what happened totally, but for a while, while they are playing with friends, they can feel happy. This gives them strength to continue with their studies.”
And children like Jaree and Panupong will need a lot of strength for the future. As Jaree put it: “I’m glad the counselors came because without them I wouldn’t have had the encouragement I need to carry on.”