Hundreds of children disappear in Aceh

Crowds, eager for information of missing loved ones, form in the mornings outside the Indonesian military hospital in Banda Aceh.

    Survivors get medical attention and look for their relatives

    It is during this time that hospital staff post updates of the hundreds of names of injured people being treated inside its sprawling compound.

    Ahmad Furquomudin is looking for two younger sisters who disappeared when the massive tsunami wiped out several villages in Lohk Nga 12km west of the city on 26 December.

    "The youngest was on my shoulders and the other was holding my hand as we ran from the great wave," says the 30-year-old paramedic. "They were so small they could not hold on to me and were swept away. I have been looking for them ever since."

    Estimates now place the number of dead in Indonesia's Aceh province at roughly 94,000. An additional 2000 are listed as missing.

    Aid officials have no idea how many youngsters are missing but are convinced that they are "over-represented" among the casualties throughout the tsunami-affected region, says Unicef's Indonesia communications director John Budd.

    Children were more likely than working parents to be close to the beach at 8:15am on a Sunday, roughly the time the tsunami created by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit, he said.

    Missing youth

    In a troubling development on Monday, Unicef, the United Nations agency responsible for protecting the rights of children around the world, reported that hundreds of children who made it to the camps for displaced people have vanished.

    Some youngsters may have been
    taken by well-wishers

    "We believe 300 children have been shipped out of Aceh in the past week but we are not sure at this point whether we are looking at something sinister or just the altruistic behaviour of people who have taken these children in," said Budd.

    "It could be that these people took them away to save them from starvation. We are concerned though, we do not want these kids shipped out, full stop."

    Adoption ban

    On Monday, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered adoptions of Acehnese children to cease in an attempt to ensure their safety.

    Unicef, which is expected to open its first aid station in the capital on Tuesday, wants all children coming into the hundreds of itinerant camps that dot the landscape to be registered, and where possible their hometowns and family details recorded.

    Identifying children can be hard
    and many are not registered

    "It is important that we ID where they are coming from to ensure the later reunification with their parents if the parents are still alive, or to return them to their home villages where it is possible and appropriate," said Budd.

    That process is complicated by the fact that so many orphans are arriving at aid areas unattended and dozens of coastal villages appear to have been obliterated by the tsunami.

    In addition, on the ravaged west coast of Aceh and in the capital itself, most government departments have effectively ceased operations so there is no civilian authority to take charge.

    Government disabled

    "Ninety per cent of the government officers are either dead or grieving the loss of family members," says Johannes Bakti Suparto, a retired civil servant working for a Western non-governmental organisation.

    "The same thing applies for the police and the army. Thousands of them died and those that did not are also traumatised by the events. For the survivors, there is nowhere to turn."

    With so many drop-in centres (posko) opening up under a variety of political, religious and social banners, there is no centralised information ledger and the quality of information gathered varies wildly.

    In some cases it is enough to show up at a posko to ensure you have a relatively safe place to stay and some food and water, where it is available. No registration takes place and those working at the stations have only the vaguest notion of how many people they are supporting, who they are and where they come from.

    Search continues

    Stacks of meticulously lined and handwritten papers testify to the scrupulous manner in which volunteers at the al-Faisal mosque on a quiet, unaffected side street 3km from the city centre are collecting data from the 386 people in the compound, including 32 unattended children.

    Families are desperate to find
    their loved ones

    Nine-year-old Faisal is among them. Hailing from Pulau Breueh 30km offshore, he has not seen his parents since he rode his bicycle to a soccer match several kilometres from home on Sunday morning. He was taken in by a family until the rescue boat they were on reached Banda Aceh, at which point they vanished. A passing motorcycle driver brought him to the mosque.

    "I don't know where my family is, so I am all alone," he says shyly. "The people here are nice to me, they gave me new slippers and a T-shirt but I want to find my parents."

    Back at the military hospital Ahmad's search has again come up empty. He unwittingly borrows a page from the 9/11 tragedy in New York City.

    From an envelope he produced photocopies of a simple note and pictures of two girls dressed in formal sarongs, looking serious. The note read: Lost. Samira and Maghfirah: ages four and nine: if found please contact the following numbers.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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