David Brickey Bloomer, Asia Regional Child Protection Advisor
January 6, 2014
Two main issues weighed heavily on my mind as the plane landed in Tacloban five days after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through Eastern Visayas.
Firstly, it was the prospect of unaccompanied and separated children. With dead bodies lining the streets, we assumed that we would be documenting many cases of children unaccompanied or who have lost their parents in the storm.
The other was the physical safety and psychosocial well-being of children in the aftermath of such a large scale disaster that left so many displaced and impacted. Death and the loss of shelter affected almost everyone.
While fortunately there were few cases of children separated from their families – and for this I acknowledge the strong Filipino family structure and disaster preparedness, the physical hazards for children and adults were everywhere. Planks of wood with rusty nails; shredded sheets of corrugated tin roofing, downed electrical wires; and smashed windows and glass were littered everywhere. In villages, fallen coconut trees created obstacle courses of movement and even the air in many places was thick with smoke as people burned piles of debris.
With schools obviously not being opened—and badly damaged if not completely obliterated—and adults so preoccupied with salvaging what they could, rebuilding their homes or temporary shelters and trying to restore their livelihoods, children in the thousands were left with little in the way of structure and routine and in many cases roamed aimlessly around their community. Along the highway south of Tacloban city, hundreds of children begged for food and money.
This posed an extremely dangerous situation for children, who scrambled for coins or food that was tossed out of passing car windows, and I used my time in the field doing assessments to hold brief awareness raising sessions with barangay and municipality authorities, groups of parents and even with children themselves on the risks of physical harm as well as the dangers of trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Along with other aid agencies and government departments, discussions on common awareness messages on protection were developed and disseminated.
Assessing the situation of children’s psychosocial well being was a major task in the initial phases of the Haiyan response efforts. Overwhelmingly, children seemed to be making sense and coming to terms with the disaster. Many children expressed fears associated with high winds and water and other aspects that brought back memories of when the typhoon struck. However, most children seemed to be in a state perhaps best described as “numbness” or “shock” but with few signs of extensive change in behaviours.
It was a very different picture, however, as you moved into communities that were more extensively damaged and where the death toll, even among children, was higher. In communities where so many died there was hardly space to bury the dead and large mass graves were established. In one community, hundreds were buried in front of the Catholic Church, which had become the temporary office space for the barangay captain.
As we talked one morning, the barangay captain, obviously sleep deprived and dealing with tremendous grief, fought back tears as he told me about so many of his friends that he had lost and how the village was completely devastated. As I rested my hand on his shoulder for comfort, he pointed to the mass graves in front where many children played: “Please if you can help the children of my community,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks, “we have no school and children have nowhere to go, so they come to this graveyard and play; many of their own friends are buried there and some are still missing.”
Save the Children established a Child Friendly Space—a safe space for children to gather, play, have time for social interaction with their friends, engage in non-formal learning activities and to receive psychosocial support—in this and many other communities like it.