Children casualty rates 'higher than first thought'
18 January 2005
Relief workers were finding fewer children in camps for tsunami refugees than they had hoped, and feared that children made up an even greater percentage of the dead than first estimated.
"You just don't see the little kids in the camps - babies, infants and toddlers," said Christine Knudsen, a senior officer for Save the Children, a non-profit worldwide advocacy and relief group. "Let's hope we're wrong, but that's the trend right now."
Hard numbers are difficult to find. Relief workers originally estimated children made up three of every 10 people killed when an earthquake triggered a tsunami that swept the coasts of 12 countries on December 26.
But as relief workers canvassed camps in Indonesia, the hardest-hit country, to tally the number of children, they were beginning to reassess first estimates.
"In all the camps, the number of children is low," said Frederic Sizaret, a child-protection officer with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Relief workers hoped for a more accurate picture of the child death toll later this month, when schools reopened and they could compare this year's enrolment with last year's.
Anecdotal evidence and other early signs lead them to think that children, especially very young ones, could not escape the battering pressure of the tsunami.
"Only the strongest survived in this disaster," Sizaret said.
Experts originally calculated that children comprised about 30 per cent of victims, because that was their relative proportion in the general population, Knudsen said.
When relief officials first arrived in Indonesia, they thought they would find thousands of children either orphaned or missing one of their parents, and many lost children being cared for by other adults.
So far, however, UNICEF and other agencies have found only 400 cases of "separated" children, a term for anyone younger than 18 years who was separated from both parents or from customary caregivers, Sizaret said.
"The number of separated and unaccompanied children is not as high as we feared," said UNICEF spokeswoman Shantha Bloemen. "One speculation is that it is because so many children were killed."
Workers in Aceh province had collected 84,637 bodies, with as many as 132,000 more people missing, most of whom, three weeks after the tsunami, were not expected to be found alive. Officials have not said how many of those were children.
Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh and ground zero in tsunami-lashed northern Sumatra, was plastered with posters of missing children.
A local newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, publishes a page and a half of advertisements daily for missing people, almost all of them children.
"Yoga, Where are you, my son?" lamented a poster with three bright pictures of a smiling lad, stuck to a pillar plastered with other posters outside a Red Cross disaster centre. It described a seven-year-old boy, Muhammad Rizka Yoga, with an unusual birthmark on his neck.
"A lot of the people missing are most presumably dead, but in a situation like this you try to do everything you can," Red Cross spokesman Bernt Apeland said.
The counterparts to the "missing" posters are just inside the central hallway of the centre. There, on a bulletin board, are the "I am Alive" lists. Compiled by the Red Cross, they contain more than 400 names of children and adults who want to advertise that they survived the tsunami.