Pupils help trauma relief;Briefing International

26th February 1999 at 00:00
COLOMBIA

Teenagers from a war zone are counselling earthquake survivors, reports Sally Ramsden

Young victims of last month's devastating earthquake in Colombia are being helped on the road to recovery by schoolchildren who have themselves suffered loss in the country's violent civil war.

Volunteers from the Colombian Children's Movement for Peace are working with local teachers and officials to support the estimated 100,000 children whose lives were shattered in seconds by the earthquake.

The tremors ripped through the coffee-growing belt in western Colombia, wiping away families, homes and some town centres. More than 1,000 people were killed, 5,000 injured and 250,000 made homeless. In the worst-hit areas, 80 per cent of schools were destroyed or badly damaged.

Immediate relief efforts have focused on saving lives and providing food, water and shelter. But aid workers are now looking to the future with an initiative involving teenagers from Uraba, the war-torn region in the north of the country.

"We know what it is like to lose loved ones and live in fear, so we are helping the children here to express their nightmares," said one adolescent volunteer. "That way they can cope better with life."

"One eight-year-old girl just stood in the corner away from the other children for the first week of activities. But by the second week she'd started to talk and join in. She had held her mother's hand through the rubble of her collapsed house as she died."

The teenage counsellors are contributing to a social rehabilitation programme which includes recreational games, drama, painting and writing. Such activities can help traumatised children to regain confidence and rebuild their lives.

The peace movement volunteers have all been involved in similar support work with their own communities displaced by "la violencia". Carel De Rooy, representative of UNICEF, the United Nations' children's fund, in Colombia, said: "Building a link between the younger children and local teenagers who have been through terror themselves is much more effective than sending adults in. Communication is easier and the support more effective."

The next priority, he said, is the re-introduction of educational activities. Working closely with the ministry of education, UNICEF is providing 10,000 education kits containing notebooks, pencils and crayons, accompanied by "school in a box" kits to help surviving teachers get education off the ground again.

The schools that are still standing in earthquake-affected areas are running three shifts a day to accommodate extra pupils. In some cases, tents have been erected next to the remains of their classrooms so that children can continue learning close to somewhere familiar.

As life slowly returns to normal in towns close to the epicentre of the quake, graffiti has appeared which reads: "Our houses may have been destroyed but not our dreams."

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