PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Four-year-old Jo, orphaned by Haiti’s devastating earthquake, was chatting on a cell phone and asking for toys and sweets.
The young boy told a Haitian Red Cross volunteer he was on the phone with his mother, although she was one of the tens of thousands killed in the January 12 catastrophe in the poor Caribbean country.
“I asked him, ‘Who have you been talking to?’” Red Cross worker Magalie Saint Simon, who rescued the boy after the quake, said in an interview on Thursday.
“With my mother,” he told her. “She said she was not coming to get me ... because she is dead.”
Jo and other orphans are being treated by a mobile psychological counseling unit deployed for the first time in such a disaster by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Ea Suzanne Ashak, who heads the unit, said the ICRC learned the importance of quick psychological intervention after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people, mainly in Indonesia, India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
“People who didn’t get any psycho-support withered, they didn’t engage in society again, they didn’t engage in rebuilding society,” she said. “Their livelihood was lost, they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know where to turn, they sort of all just sat around, hung around.”
In Haiti, the goal is to immediately help people cope with their extreme distress so they can focus on physical survival, she said.
Trained volunteers try gently to pry out information about lost children, their relatives and their grief. Jo’s imaginary telephone conversation can be one safe way to help young children express their grief.
Saint Simon said the children show distress in different ways. Some stop eating or talking, others become hyperactive and others simply stay angry.
World Health Organization experts say treating the psychological effects of the quake may be as important as treating the physical injuries, especially among young victims who may carry the mental scars for life.
Children under the age of 18 make up nearly half of Haiti’s 9 million residents, according to the U.N. children’s fund,
Jo, initially reserved and withdrawn, finally opened up when Magalie gave him a telephone to play with.
“That really touched me because he feels something inside that comes through. I don’t know, but there is something wrong inside,” Magalie told Reuters Television.
“I am so happy because he has started to eat now. He just said to me there that he is hungry.”
The two weeks since the quake that killed up to 200,000 Haitians and injured 1 million have been critical to helping the children cope, Magalie said.
“If you go around the tents, you will see the change. If you had come before, you would have said they were monsters. They did not play, didn’t want to talk, to express themselves. When we talked to them, they were mute. It was incredible. Now it’s OK.”