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16 May 2008

Burma’s lost children

In the second of her exclusive reports for newstatesman.com, Katy Barnett highlights the efforts of

By Katy Barnett

Day two. Already it feels like I’ve been here for so long that I can’t remember what came before the Burma cyclone response. I’ve become so used to slipping my sandals off at the entrance to the office (where a small field of paired flipflops grows throughout the morning) that I was mortified to join an interagency meeting this morning where everyone kept their shoes on.

We rattled through the child protection landscape at speed, pausing to consider the dilemmas.

How can we best coordinate our family tracing efforts, so that a separated child identified by an agency in one area can be reunited with their parents in a different area, where another agency is working? Should we use photos of the separated children as a way of tracing their parents? If the photos are displayed in public areas, children might be spotted by their parents who are looking for them. But do we have the right battery powered printers to do this without any power? Perhaps it would be quicker and more efficient to post lists of names and patrol the camps with a loud hailer.

When I got back to the office it looked somehow different. Then I realised the new wall was in fact a huge stack of petrol canisters. One of the meeting rooms was filled with trunks of other equipment – it’s starting to feel a little crowded. But access to the affected area is really opening up, and the office is buzzing, with everyone on phones, email (when it’s working) and holding high speed meetings to keep everything on the response side running smoothly.

The second half of the day was a bigger success than expected, as we were able to train not only our own staff on family tracing, but staff and trainers from other agencies as well. Working together like this bodes well. And supper time was even better – not least because it happened at all, unlike yesterday, but also because of the company. We eat with a couple of professors from Washington, who have been helping us to develop techniques for children to deal with their fear and distress. They talked a little about their own fear and distress in the hotel when the storm struck.

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On deciding to evacuate, they discovered that there was no stairway connecting their floor with the ground floor (and no power for the lift, now dripping with water), so they sat in the hallway cowering as bits of flying debris smashed into the walls and windows. The entire hotel was trashed, and the road outside was littered with mature trees from the park opposite. But that didn’t stop some of the other guests complaining that breakfast wasn’t served on time – apparently, it’s all about stress management.

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