A 10-year-old named David – not his real name – was asleep when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the highlands region of Papua New Guinea in late February.
As the house began swaying, David got up, grabbed his roommate and ran as fast as he could to his caretaker. He held her tight, asking her not to leave him behind.
“Everything will be alright’, I told them. Or we’ll all go to heaven,” said Michelle – also not her real name – who is providing care for David and 12 other children. The quake and over 100 aftershocks affected 544,000 people and left an estimated 270,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 125,000 children. Southern Highlands and Hela are the two provinces worst hit by the quakes.
Like many children in Papua New Guinea, David has already suffered much trauma in his life: a mother accused of witchcraft, abandoned by his parents, left to fend for himself at the age of 8, and exiled from his village.
The earthquakes and hundreds of aftershocks add yet another layer of trauma for many children like David.
The morning after the quake, Michelle and the children walked around the house. They were lucky – no one was injured, and their property was not damaged. Yet six weeks after the massive earthquake, the children still suffer significant stress as hundreds of aftershocks continue.
David, a shy, observant boy with sparkling eyes, is worried that the earthquake may take his caretaker and other children away from him. Without them, he has no one left in his life, and nowhere to go.
“They are all very frightened even now,” Michelle said. “The young children still cry. They run to me every time the earth is shaking.”
Unicef is now setting up 26 child-friendly spaces to provide psychosocial support services for more than 14,000 children in the severely affected areas, including the Southern Highlands Province where David lives.
The spaces are safe places where children can receive psychosocial support to regain a sense of normalcy, play and learn life skills including good hygiene practice.
In the aftermath of the earthquakes, the stress and trauma among children needs attention, particularly in a country with already high incidences of violence, abuse and neglect.
Children in Papua New Guinea experience some of the highest rates of violence in the Asia-Pacific region. About 75 per cent of children report experiences of physical abuse and about 80 per cent experience emotional abuse during their lifetime.
“The pre-existing conditions of violence and abuse with the additional impact of the earthquakes can really pose long-term negative consequences to children’s development and their overall well-being,” said Hennie Kama, Unicef’s child protection specialist.
“Not only do we need to urgently address stress and trauma caused by the earthquakes, but also the psychological damage that children are experiencing for some time from the existing violence in society.”
Children who have suffered from trauma have an increased risk of delayed development, mental health disorders, depression, self-harm and suicide, she added.
David was born in a remote, rugged village in the mountainous terrain of the Southern Highlands. When he was five, his mother was accused of witchcraft, known as “sanguma” in her local language.
Belief in sorcery remains widespread in many parts of the country, especially in the Highlands region, and such accusations often lead to brutal attacks and murder.
Fearing violent attacks, his parents ran away, leaving David behind with his aunt. The parents never returned for him.
David’s life has since become more settled, but the earthquakes have made the lives of thousands of children like David much harder. Strong aftershocks were happening on an almost daily basis, and children were never sure how bad they might be.
Since the quakes, however, David now has access to a Unicef-supported child-friendly space where he can play with friends and receive support for the trauma he has suffered.
Unicef is also working with the government to set up temporary learning spaces, provide education supplies as well as train teachers on psychosocial first aid to help children get back to normalcy. Almost every day after school David visits the child-friendly space to play before heading home to help Michelle prepare dinner. “I like playing soccer with my friends here. I feel happy when I play,” David said with a cheerful smile.
“I want to be a policeman when I grow up.” David added. He did not say why, but disappeared into a long silence with tears in his eyes.
Nattha Keenapan is Communication Officer at UNICEF Thailand