'When I was in the wave I felt like a little ant'

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Children who survived the Boxing Day tsunami were left with terrible images seared on their brains. Art therapy has helped liberate them from their nightmares, reports Elaine Williams

The pictures are bone-chilling. Amreen, 13, has used her limited palette of crayons to create a wall of black churning water soaring in a great arc, poised to engulf the tiny hut and palm trees in its path. In another picture a giant blue wave races along a beach, sweeping up the tiny matchstick people running for their lives.

The children who created these drawings cannot speak of the horror that inspired them. They are the survivors of the tsunami that devastated the coastal regions of 10 countries in the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004, swallowing their homes, friends and family. What they cannot put into words, some are able to express in line and colour; the nightmare that haunts them fills the page.

Their artwork forms the heart of an anthology of stories to be published next month: the personal accounts of children who experienced the tsunami retold by 15 children's authors including Alan Gibbons, Melvin Burgess, Gillian Cross and Eoin Colfer. The result is a powerful collection that draws the reader into the terror of that day and the emotional aftermath in a way that television footage cannot.

Gibbons creates the ghost voice of a boy who didn't survive, telling the story of a young mother faced with the most harrowing of choices: either try to save both her children, knowing for certain that they will all die, or flee with her babe-in-arms and hope against all odds that her son will survive. "The pain of that dilemma clarifies the pain of the disaster," says Gibbons. "These stories, using children's voices, have a simplicity about them, like the psalms. But they bring home so powerfully the fact that these people were not victims but real people with real lives and family relationships, who suffer as we suffer."

The pictures were created through charities, including Unicef, which brought clean water, food and sanitation to keep children alive, protected orphaned children from exploitation, and provided psycho-social support.

During the first six months after the tsunami, Unicef supplied "school-in-a-box" packs with stationery, crayons and blackboards for rudimentary school routines to be re-established.

Art therapy has helped children overcome their fears. The Mennonite Central Committee, a charity based in Pennsylvania, sent psychotherapist Carolyn Heggen to the Andaman Islands to train volunteers, doctors and aid workers to use art therapy with children and collect some of their pictures, featured in the anthology. "Many children stopped speaking and were not sleeping," she says. "I would ask them to draw me a picture of what was in their mind and they would often pick up a black crayon and make huge scribbles.

"Over time their pictures became more refined. One boy, Suresh Kumar, told me: 'When I was in the wave I felt like a little ant.' He kept drawing people as small as ants being swept up by a big blue wave. I told children that I was taking their pictures to a safe place on the other side of the world so that the images were no longer trapped in their mind."

Another contributor is Steve Voake, until July headteacher of Kilmersdon primary in Somerset and now a full-time children's author. He retells the story of two friends down on the beach washing cars for pocket money before the waves came. "This is a dark story but there is light in the darkness as these children also saved others," he says. "These stories do not shy away from the fact that awful things happen, yet they are also full of hope.

Teachers can use them to bring cultures much closer by getting children to imagine how they would react, how they would feel in the same situation.

Such things can happen anywhere. The tragedy of Mississippi proves that."

Higher Ground will be published by Chrysalis Children's Books on October 6, pound;4.99. A limited special edition, with CD of stories read by actors and comedians including James Nesbitt and Sean Bean, will be available priced pound;9.99. Proceeds go to five children's charities working in the tsunami-affected areas: Unicef, Save the Children, Handicap International, Y Care International, and SOS Children. See www.highergroundproject.org.uk

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