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Schools get priority in quake zone

Getting kids into classrooms part of recovery process

By Zein Basravi
for CNN

Children in a classroom at a Rawalpindi schoolhouse.



United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Disasters and Accidents

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistani-controlled Kashmir (CNN) -- Spring is on its way, emergency operations in the South Asian quake zone are slowly winding down and relief workers are shifting focus to reconstruction and recovery.

Restarting schools is a top priority in the affected areas. With survivors still picking up the pieces, relief workers hope that getting children back into their school seats will help restore routine in their lives and begin the healing process.

"The first thing, of course, we can do is open the schools," said Chiharu Kondo, one of UNICEF's education officers based in the Muzaffarabad field office.

"If we open the schools, the kids start to feel the normalcy in their lives, that there is order. They can come to school and they play and learn and go back home and they can talk about it with their parents or family. That's the start -- sort of the beginning of a healing process."

Close to 4,600 schools were destroyed, tens of thousands of children killed and more than 10,000 injured or disabled in the October 2005 earthquake. Many were crushed under the rubble of the 891 schools that were destroyed in Muzaffarabad, the quake's epicenter.

An estimated 400,000 primary school children are still living in the affected areas. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), only a little more than 127,000 of them are attending classes in 952 tent or open-air schools.

Kondo said getting the children to interact and back into the social environment of classrooms is an important part of getting the community back on its feet, even if schools are rudimentary and lacking supplies.

"Basically there's nothing -- no building and no materials to teach," she said.

"There's no textbooks, pens, pencils, notebooks -- nothing. Basically they can sit on the ground without anything above their heads, but you know, talk to their friends and the teacher can do some activities."

Children are among the most emotionally traumatized and vulnerable of the quake survivors. In Muzaffarabad, for instance, at least 1,500 children lost one or both parents.

The trauma of death has affected everyone; young survivors have had to deal with physical injuries and losing friends, family and teachers.

Kondo said keeping the children in a school environment is an important part of recognizing psychological trauma and delivering psychosocial support.

While local teachers aren't expected to be counselors, Kondo said they were being prepared to deal sensitively with children to provide some basic help.

Muzaffarabad, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) north of Islamabad, was heavily damaged by the quake. Many of the buildings destroyed in the city were built using bricks and a bonding solution of cement mixed with sand and sedimentary pebbles from the banks of nearby rivers. The mixture is cheaper than using larger portions of cement and as one local police officer put it, "the reason there's been so much destruction."

To help the city's redevelopment, UNICEF has drawn up guidelines for new schools that promote safety as well as a healthy learning environment.

Kondo said it is important to work closely with the government during the reconstruction phase, focusing on details like water access, separate toilets for boys and girls, classroom and playground design, as well as earthquake safety measures to make sure new schools are more child-friendly and built to higher standards.

"We can provide the technical assistance to make sure the schools are safe and earthquake proof. We also have to make sure the classrooms have enough space for all the children," Kondo said.

"We need to have enough space inside the classroom [and] we need to have enough space outside the classroom for playing or recreational activity."

In conjunction with partner organizations, the U.N. is currently operating open-air or tent schools and working with the Pakistani government to assess needs and create a timeline for permanent reconstruction.

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