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According to Save The Children, around 100,000 children were displaced by what has become Japan's worst natural disaster since 1923.Ã‚ Due to the fact the quake and tsunami hit during the day, most children were in school or nurseries apart from their parents. Fears are that many will be orphaned.
The horror of Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster has raised concerns over the long-term impact on children, some of whom are already displaying signs of trauma, from screaming nightmares to silent withdrawal.
The potential for lasting trauma is compounded by the unusual multiple nature of the event: ground shaking lasting five whole minutes, water rushing hundreds of miles an hour over entire regions, and a nationwide scare over a possible meltdown at a nuclear plant.
Experts say the scale of the loss and disruption for some children would have been almost inconceivable: homes destroyed, friends disappeared, one or both parents missing or killed, or siblings and other close family members missing.
Initial efforts to help them come to terms with the tragedy can only be made in extremely stressful circumstances, with families packed into ill-equipped evacuation shelters, suffering bitterly cold nights and frequent terrifying aftershocks.
“We found children in desperate conditions, huddling around kerosene lamps and wrapped in blankets,” said Save the Children spokesman Ian Woolverton, who visited a number of evacuation centers in the regions of Japan that bore the brunt of the March 11 tsunami.
“They told me about their anxieties, especially their fears about radiation,” Woolverton said, adding that several youngsters had mentioned the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which they know from school books.
Parents, many traumatized themselves, have struggled to keep their own fears in check as they try to soothe their children and provide them with some sense of normality and security.
Atsushi Takahashi, 36, said his two-year-old son Haruto has been terrified by the constant, sometimes powerful aftershocks.
“He's been very scared, crying out Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthe house is shaking. I don't like the house',” Takahashi said, holding his son as he waited in line for fresh water.
“I always tell him that everything is okay and I hug him,” Takahashi said. “I think we just have to let time heal the wounds.”
Many children have had trouble sleeping, waking repeatedly in the night with bad dreams, while others have mentally shut down, shunning any company but their parents, whom they refuse to let out of their sight for even a moment.
Woolverton said the priority for Save The Children was to set up “child-friendly spaces” where children of a similar age could interact and start to play again.
“I know from years of experience that if children play, it can ward off the chance of major long-term emotional trauma,” he said.
“The idea is also to relieve the stress on parents and to give them a break from childcare duties as they register for emergency assistance, try to find food, locate friends and family members and, in the longer term, jobs and housing.”
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