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13 May 2008

The view from inside Burma

Save The Children child protection advisor Katy Barnett is one of the few foreign aid workers to hav

By Katy Barnett

Less than twenty four hours ago I was in a different world – the shiny expanse of Bangkok’s new airport, busy with sushi, hotspots, orchids, palatial lounges and themed cafés. Here in Yangon, everyone is focusing on recovery and survival, one step at a time. The traffic lights don’t work, nobody has had time to right the pot plants on the office balcony, which have fallen like dominoes, and even simple things like sending an email are mini triumphs amidst the frustration.

Everything seems to change continuously – flights are happening, then not happening, then happening … this a good thing in one way, because you don’t take the things that do go well for granted. We’re starting to reach some of the remote, worst hit areas with our aid now, with national teams working flat out round the clock to fill boats and trucks with food, water purifying tablets, blankets and other essentials. I listened to one young woman in our team say how satisfying it was to see children smile as they played in one of the child friendly spaces we have set up, where children can talk through their fears and anxieties.

The hardest part of the work for me is ensuring that there’s enough time and money set aside to keep children safe, as well as giving them food, water, shelter, and somewhere to play. One of my jobs here is to help our team set up tracing to reunite lost children with their parents and families, and to make sure that in the mean time, whilst we are doing the tracing, they’re looked after by caring adults from their own communities and don’t fall prey to traffickers. Sometimes, when the child’s parents just can’t be found, we have to find another relative or foster family. There are unconfirmed reports already of one camp of 3,000 people includes 300 orphans – this is incredibly high, so we’ll have to verify with our own assessment.

On the roads in town young men and boys are cutting up fallen trees, loading them on to lorries. It’s a reminder that children are also starting to complain that they are having to work to support themselves and sometimes their families. All over the world children report that, in the aftermath of wars and disasters, they are forced to give up school, and sometimes even move away from their families too, to become street hawkers, factory workers and domestic servants, just to make ends meet. We still have a lot to learn about how to keep children safe in those crucial months and years after the quick fire aid has gone.

The best news of the day is our national team: the ones I have already met are full of energy and commitment, and eager to get this right. We worked till 5pm today before we realised we had forgotten to have lunch… Tomorrow, we’re expecting streams of field workers to return with more information, and we’ll be able to train them up in family tracing techniques before sending them out again.

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