Sun, 06 Mar 2005

Closer work needed to find Aceh children a home

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

While everyone agrees that it takes a village to raise a child, the combined efforts of various institutions and organizations to find a home for orphaned and separated Acehnese children have yet to receive the greater attention they need.

The government, international relief organizations and foreign and local non-governmental organizations (NGO) came to an almost unanimous decision that removing the children from their hometowns for adoption or to orphanages are not an option.

However, the as yet unfounded, but sensitive issues of child abduction and trafficking have been a stumbling block in their work.

Syaiful Amri, the coordinator of a youth group network called Lost Children Operation! in Banda Aceh -- the capital of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam and the city worst hit by the disaster -- said their effort to locate children living with neighbors or family friends was relatively smoother, because they spoke the same language.

"When we try to gather data on how many children survived, the people tend to shut down all access. We have to approach the neighborhood chief or local religious leaders to explain our intentions before they will take us to the children," he said.

"Besides, many of the families who have taken in (orphaned or separated) children lost their own children to the tsunami. They just want to be a whole family again without much fanfare or publicity," Syaiful added.

He said the network, which was supported by Japanese religious group Kougetsu Shinjukai, had found of such children out of more than 100 children who were living with other families across Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar municipalities.

The network, together with the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), is currently distributing flyers that bear the photographs of missing children of families who are living in shelters.

The network's database, according to Syaiful, has been reorganized according to the international standard introduced by UNICEF and Save the Children, with whom they maintained regular communication.

In its effort to reunite the children with their parents -- or at least their closest living relatives -- the PMI has established two special services: "I'm Alive" and "I'm Looking For". Through these services, the PMI posts the photographs and names of missing and separated children on its bulletin boards across Aceh and in the neighboring North Sumatra capital of Medan.

"But it's not easy to get complete information on where a child was found after the tsunami or information on their parents and residence, because many children who survived are too young to remember such things," said Anwar, a Red Cross volunteer who is in charge of maintaining the services.

Meanwhile, the government took immediate steps to set up a joint ministerial task force to address children's issues in Aceh. The task force is spearheaded by the Office of the Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare and the Office of the State Minister of Women's Empowerment.

That dozens of organizations and groups are involved in the reunification effort is unavoidable, as the need is immense. Although the government does not yet have a complete database on missing and separated children, a rough estimate compiled from various reports on missing people now reaches over 100,000 children.

"I believe up to 20,000 children are out there waiting to be found by their families," Syaiful said.

While government institutions, relief organizations and NGOs are of one mind about keeping the children in Aceh, they are working independently to develop their own methods and resources as well.

The National Family Planning Board (BKKBN), the front-runner of its peers, has begun establishing its own Internet database, which can be shared by others to avoid overlapping data.

"There are many of us in this pool together, but none of us are communicating our data. That's a big problem," said Tri Cahyadi, who was assigned to restore the BKKBN's branch office in Banda Aceh.

Coordinating with a student group from Banda Aceh's Syiah Kuala University, the BKKBN has registered over 1,500 separated children and children whose parents were known to have perished in the tsunami.

Further, the agency is negotiating with local newspapers to run a regular "I'm Alive, Please Find Me" column, which will be available to all reunification programs.

"But our budget is only adequate for several days' advertisement ... Finding a home for these children must be viewed as an open-ended effort. There is no time limit. But without close coordination among us, it will take longer than we expect," Tri said.