ASIA

Helping Nepal's children cope with 'immense trauma' of 7.8 earthquake

Children account for more than one-quarter of the nearly 9,000 killed and 21,000 injured in the Nepal quake

Amid row after row of tents in Tundikhel, an open field in the center of this earthquake-ravaged capital, is a big blue tarpaulin under which children buzz about with colorful balloons and clay.

Indira Khadka, 28, sat on a gray mat beside dozens of tiny pairs of slippers and watched her 2-year-old son, Ishan, build a house with wooden blocks.

"I am relieved to see him finally playing and laughing," said Khadka, whose family has lived in Tundikhel since a massive aftershock on May 12 damaged the room she rents in central Katmandu. "He has lost his appetite since we started camping out here last week."

Since a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal last month — and a series of aftershocks caused more destruction and frayed nerves — almost 1 million children have been unable to return to damaged school buildings, according to UNICEF estimates.

The state of limbo has exacerbated the toll on some of Nepal's most vulnerable, as children and their parents are forced to seek stability in temporary spaces set up by aid agencies and others in devastated towns and tent camps like Tundikhel.

"Children need some form of stability to overcome the immense trauma," said Ramsey Ben-Achour, a UNICEF child protection specialist who recently visited the temporary learning center in Tundikhel.

"However, children are very resilient and as soon as schools reopen, they'll feel normal again."

Children accounted for more than one-quarter of the nearly 9,000 killed and 21,000 injured in the April 25 temblor, according to official figures. Schools closed after the quake were scheduled to reopen May 15, but that was pushed back by two weeks after the major aftershock caused more serious damage.

Rita Upreti, a fourth-grader, has been living with her family in Tundikhel, playing in the tents and drawing pictures of what she remembers of Katmandu before the earthquake.

"I was watching TV when the first earthquake struck," she said. "I hid under the bed until the shaking stopped and then ran outside."

She showed a sketch of the city's skyline featuring the iconic nine-story Dharahara tower, which collapsed in the quake, burying scores of people. Her ancestral home in Kavre district, east of Katmandu, was destroyed too, and the rented room where she lives with her parents in the capital was also severely damaged.

She spoke enthusiastically about returning to school, but her voice soon trailed off.

"How will we take our midterm exams if the school buildings aren't repaired soon?" she said. "There is no way to run outside of the school if another earthquake strikes."

UNICEF and local and international aid agencies have opened temporary spaces for children such as the tent city in Tundikhel and are providing counseling. Experts hope the services will assist children vulnerable to post-disaster trauma, along with parents who are also struggling with anxiety because of the damage and frequent aftershocks.

"People are more worried now after May 12, and the apprehension in elders passes on to the children, who will end up suffering the most in the absence of any emotional outlet," said Nirjala Bhattarai, a psychological counselor in Katmandu.

Nepal's earthquake preparedness policies have neglected mental health issues, she said, requiring local and international agencies to intervene with emergency programs.

"All we ever talked about was about physical safety during and after the earthquake," she said. "It is about time we also include psychological first aid and intervention in our awareness programs."

Nepalese authorities have said they are planning to train schoolteachers to help children cope with their anxiety when schools reopen May 31.

"It is a big challenge to address the growing concern of mental health, especially among children," Health Minister Khagaraj Adhikari said at a recent news conference. "Our institutions alone will not be sufficient."

Ministry officials have yet to assess the number of people who need counseling after the earthquake, but say they have begun training teachers in some districts and mobilizing psychiatric teams.

"With so many aftershocks, people are bound to be anxious," Adhikari said. "We hope to give them, especially children, some form of stability once they return to classrooms."

Rai is a special correspondent.

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