Victims still mourn their parents in school that became an orphanage

The scale of loss defies belief. Reconstruction is slow, and the mental scars are not healing
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The Independent Online

Down a country lane in the village of Lamceu stands a cluster of dilapidated cream buildings, facing a dusty courtyard where boys charge around in the afternoon sun.

Until recently, this was a pesantren, an Islamic boarding school where students lived and breathed the teachings of the Koran. Now it is an orphanage, home to 200 young victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated the region six months ago today.

They include Mohammed Rizal, eight years old, but already a witness to events that few adults can even begin to imagine. He lived through the tsunami, but lost most of his family, including both parents and several siblings. His home and school were destroyed, along with the village where he grew up, on a small island off Sumatra. When he first arrived at the orphanage, he used to wake up crying in the night. He would call for his parents and ask to go home. Now he seems a bright, cheerful boy. "I like it here," he said. "I've got lots of friends."

Helping children like Mohammed Rizal is one of the biggest challenges facing the province as it strives to build a future for survivors. Repairing the physical damage is daunting enough; nearly 200,000 new houses must be constructed, together with schools, clinics, bridges and roads. But healing psychological wounds is a more complex task. The World Health Organisation believes a quarter of the children, and the majority of adults, are suffering from trauma-related distress.

Aceh is gripped by a collective grief that is felt on every level: individual, family and community. Up to 170,000 people died, and survivors were deprived of everything - homes, jobs, villages and loved ones - at a stroke. The scale of bereavement is inconceivable; nearly everybody lost someone, and some lost everyone.

Rehabilitating a society traumatised to this degree can never be easy, but in Aceh there are cultural obstacles too. Mental health was an unfamiliar concept, to professionals as well as ordinary people, and therapies such as counselling did not exist. Medical relief agencies have set up counselling centres, but locals are unused to unburdening themselves to strangers.

At the Lamceu orphanage, a Malaysian charity, Mercy Corps, ran a three-month project to guide children through the most harrowing time.

Through activities such as drawing, they were encouraged to describe what happened and to articulate their feelings. The programme was heavily laced with religion, for Aceh is a devoutly Muslim place. Abdul Razak, head of the orphanage, said: "We've seen a big change since Mercy came in. The boys don't cry any more, and I think that in the future they will be OK."

While children are the most vulnerable survivors, adults are in dire need too. Petrana Ford of Médecins sans Frontières says that many have overcome the initial shock and are getting on with their lives, but others are coping poorly. That becomes plain when you visit the refugee camps and temporary shanty towns.

In the village of Gle Bruk a young man called Zulkifli sat curled in a ball, rocking back and forth, glassy-eyed. Speaking in a whisper, Zulkifli, who lost his parents and older sister, said: "It's difficult to get through the day. I can't do anything properly." In the neighbouring community of Jantang, another damaged soul, 43-year-old Mustafa, said he was still haunted by the disaster. "I find it hard to forget; it all replays in my mind," he said.

There is fear, too, of another tsunami. "Sometimes we look into the ocean to see whether another big wave is coming," said Mustafa.

A woman called Sulasmi said: "I'm scared of being by myself at night, when the sea is very loud." Since the massive earthquake off Aceh that triggered the tsunami, there have been thousands of aftershocks, as well as three smaller quakes.

As soon as the ground begins to shudder, people run towards the hills in panic.

Some survivors have expressed their feelings through the graffiti that adorn broken buildings around the province. "Remember, all of us must die," says one message. "December 26, a Sunday morning call, many lose," states another.

What is striking is the extraordinary resilience of the Acehnese, few of whom exhibit self-pity. On the contrary, those who lost a dozen relatives call themselves fortunate, because other people lost 18. The collective will to move on is palpable.