Indonesia: Back to school in Banda Aceh

As people in tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh rebuild their lives, children are returning to school. Food from WFP encourages them to attend class and keep coming back. Barry Came reports from the field.

Banda Aceh, Indonesia - Diana Novita Sari's dark eyes widen as she slowly begins to count, using her fingers to mark the names. She stops on reaching an even dozen and fixes a solemn gaze upon a visitor.

"Only twelve survived," the 11-year-old murmurs, her slender face framed by the lacey white Islamic headdress they call a jilbab in Indonesia. "All the rest are gone; almost everybody who went to my school."


Diana's school, Banda Aceh Primary School Number 109, was situated in the Ulee Lheue district of the Acehinese capital, not far from the piers where the passenger ferries from outlying islands used to dock.

Before the tsunami destroyed much of Banda Aceh's seafront last December, there were 140 students, aged six to 12, attending classes at School Number 109.

The school itself was closed on the day the tsunami struck. But most of the students lived in the area and most were at home with their parents on that fateful Sunday morning.

All of them died, except for Diana and 11 of her equally fortunate classmates. School 109 is gone too, swept away by the waves. Four other primary schools in the same seafront districts of Banda Aceh suffered a similar fate.


For a time, the survivors of the five destroyed schools were gathered together in classes at Primary School Number 93, situated further inland in the Lamtemen Timur district of Banda Aceh.

"It was a pretty crowded place then," recalls Zaimal Abidin, principal of School 93. "It was also a very sad place. A lot of the kids had lost family members. Parents were turning up all the time.

"Some of them were looking for lost children. But some, who knew their own children were gone for good, just came to look at the kids who survived."


Six months later, School 93 has returned to a semblance of normality. Among the school's 290 students, there are still a few, like Diana, who come from other schools that no longer exist.

But most of the destroyed and damaged schools in the area have been rebuilt or rehabilitated, allowing the displaced students to return.


To help keep those kids in the classroom, WFP launched a school feeding programme last April.

It currently reaches 156,000 primary school children in more than 700 schools in 10 tsunami-afflicted school districts in Aceh and North Sumatra.

The goal is to involve 340,000 children in the region by the end of the year.


The Aceh programme is an expansion of a similar, pre-tsunami school feeding programme elsewhere in Indonesia. It began more than a year ago with a pilot project involving 30,000 children in the Greater Jakarta area.

Next year, WFP hopes to reach a total of 700,000 children right across Indonesia; not only Aceh and Greater Jakarta but also in Lombok, West Timor, Surabaya and Sampang in East Java and Makassar in South Sulawesi.


Under the programme, primary school children receive a mid-morning snack of 12 biscuits that have been fortified with 13 essential vitamins and minerals. At the same time, they are given lessons in the importance of nutrition in their daily lives.

"The school feeding programme is an incentive to focus on getting children back to school, and keeping them there," explains Regis Chapman, Head of Programme at WFP's Banda Aceh office.


Judging from the results at School 93, it appears to be working. "The children look forward to it every morning," says Principal Abidin. "It seems to give them a lift."

"It's both nutritional and an educational tool," adds teacher Cut Lismar as she hands out bright red cellophane-wrapped packages of fortified biscuits to a classroom of well-behaved 11-year-olds.

"The children learn how important vitamins and minerals are in keeping them healthy and preventing sickness."


For some, especially among the less affluent, it also helps them forget empty bellies and concentrate on their studies.

"A few of these kids are hungry because many families here are struggling to recover from what the tsunami did to their lives," says Principal Abidin.

Mohammed Tarmizi is one of those. Six months after the tsunami destroyed his home, the 12-year-old is still living in a tent camp for internally displaced people along with his parents and extended family.


"The cookies taste good," young Mohammed confides, "but the real reason I like getting them is because of the money I save. I don't need it to buy food so we can use it to help build a new house."

Diana Novita Sari also likes the fortified biscuits, but for entirely different reasons. "They keep me healthy," she says. "I used to get sick a lot before. But I haven't been sick since they started handing out the cookies at school every day."