A lesson in loss as Banda Aceh goes back to school

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The Independent Online

The traumatised children of Aceh got another harsh lesson in mortality yesterday when schools reopened for the first time since the tsunami that devastated the province exactly one month ago. Those schools that survived reassembled with only a fraction of their students and teachers. Many failed to reopen for one simple reason: they no longer exist.

The traumatised children of Aceh got another harsh lesson in mortality yesterday when schools reopened for the first time since the tsunami that devastated the province exactly one month ago. Those schools that survived reassembled with only a fraction of their students and teachers. Many failed to reopen for one simple reason: they no longer exist.

At one school in Banda Aceh, only 260 of the 600 pupils enrolled turned up for classes. A little boy called Alquasar, hair neatly parted and with a Power Rangers bag on his back, arrived at school with his mother to find he was one of only six in a class that formerly numbered 43. He looked around bleakly for his best friend Andi. "I don't think he's coming," he whispered. There was no need to ask why. Like the other absentees, Andi was missing, presumed dead.

Children and teachers at schools throughout the province said prayers and wept yesterday for their missing friends and colleagues as they began to come to terms with the grim new reality. At the SMR8 secondary school in Banda Aceh, where only 300 of nearly 900 enrolled students turned up, the girls squatted in the newly cleaned basketball court, praying and reciting from the Koran. Some cried or held their heads in their hands; other stared blankly ahead. As the principal, Syarifuddin Ibrahim, read out the names of nine teachers killed in the disaster, cries of anguish rose from the students. The Aceh authorities say 45,000 school children and more than 2,300 teachers and administrators died.

It was not just the pupils and teachers who disappeared. Many of the schools vanished without trace. On the shoreline of the city of Banda Aceh, a little way beyond the lighthouse and the taxation office, there used to be a school fronting the sandy beach. Every Sunday morning children and parents from the neighbourhood gathered there for a leisurely communal splash.

Today it takes a feat of imagination to picture the scene on that beach one month ago as the first of the giant waves came thundering towards the shore because the beach itself has disappeared, along with the swimmers, and the school, and all the houses that stood around it. The only reminder that, a few weeks ago, the town looked quite different is shattered fragments of the concrete promenade sticking out of the water here and there.

About 130 schools were seriously damaged or destroyed in Aceh province, the authorities say, and 140 emergency schools have been set up in tents. Many of the surviving schools are in terrible shape. One foreign charity looking for a base in Banda Aceh after the tsunami was offered temporary use of a school on condition that they did something about the knee-high mud in the classrooms. The charity, which felt it faced enough challenges already, politely declined. Yesterday teachers, children and parents returned to find books waterlogged, and microscopes and other scientific equipment damaged beyond repair. Workers shovelling mud out of one classroom discovered a decomposing body.

The plight of Aceh's children is a priority for foreign aid agencies because in the chaotic aftermath many were either orphaned or separated from their families. Accounting for those children, making sure they do not go further astray, and beginning the slow work of curing their emotional wounds has been the task of charities such as Save the Children and World Vision.

While the schools have been closed, World Vision has been working to provide what Heather MacLeod, a child expert with the charity, calls "safe, sheltering places" for children in the camps, and providing activities for them. The most important thing they have lost, she says, is hope for the future. She stresses "the importance of routine, which makes the children think of the future. The process of developing hope for the future might go on for months and months."

Now Aceh's children have their schools back, and the structure that once represented hope and the future is again playing a central role in their lives. But first they must get used to all those empty desks.

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