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Agencies seek to protect Myanmar cyclone orphans


TOE, Myanmar (AP) — Now, 12-year-old Twe Zin Win must try to play the role of mother. Every night, she lulls her little twin sisters to sleep with a soothing lullaby their mother once sang them — before the storm swept away her parents forever.

"Every night I dream about them coming back," says Twe Zin Win, huddled in a tiny thatch hut the orphans share with grandparents, who eke out a hand-to-mouth existence while she cares for her siblings rather than going to school.

The three children are among a still unknown number of orphans coping with hardships — physical and mental — more than two months after Cyclone Nargis raged through Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, leaving a trail of flattened villages and broken lives.

In an impoverished, military-ruled country with a threadbare social safety net, aid workers are also warning that these orphans of the storm are targets of exploitation, including recruitment into Myanmar's army which has been accused by the U.N., the U.S. and human rights groups of inducting thousands of child soldiers.

"As I have seen from many other countries, including those in Asia and Africa, being orphans simply increases their vulnerability to becoming child soldiers, forced laborers, being trafficked or involved in sex work," says Ashley Clements, a spokesman for the U.S.-based aid group World Vision.

Because of such fears, agencies like World Vision working in the cyclone-devastated region are advocating placement of orphans with surviving relatives, like the grandparents in Twe Zin Win's case, rather than in orphanages.

"The goal is to put in place a mechanism to protect children from neglect, violence, abuse and exploitation," says a statement from the U.N. Children's Fund, which is supporting 51, community-based "child-friendly spaces" to provide education, recreation and other aid to children storm survivors, including orphans.

But orphans like Twe Zin Win have so far had access to neither help nor games from foreign aid groups or Myanmar government agencies.

"Every day my grandmother and I cook for them, wash their clothes, play with them, give them showers and send them to bed," she says of her tasks as a full-time keeper of the 2-year-old siblings, which have forced her to drop out of school.

A few miles away in Thome Gwe village, another 12-year-old girl, Su Myat Swe Yu, remains traumatized by the loss of her parents, a brother, sister and three close relatives on one disastrous night. She and two brothers who also were spared now struggle for survival with their grandfather, a rice farmer who lost his house and livestock — "everything we owned," he said — to the cyclone.

Both families have been approached by strangers from urban areas offering to adopt the children — and both have refused.

"I don't want to give them away. They are my son's children. I have also heard stories about children being bought and sold. My only goal in life now is taking care of my grandchildren," said Su Myat Swe Yu's grandfather, Khim Maung Than.

To deter child trafficking, the government has forbidden adoption of storm orphans. While there have been no reports of children survivors being forced into the military, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch last year detailed the recruitment of thousands of boys as young as 10 to fill shortages in army ranks.

These and similar accusations have been denied by the regime, which says it is trying to stop all human trafficking.

State media said that in mid-June authorities rescued 80 women and children, all cyclone victims, from traffickers scheming to smuggle them into a neighboring country, apparently Thailand.

Disguised as aid workers, the traffickers reportedly took the survivors from the Irrawaddy Delta, where most of the storm's nearly 140,000 dead or missing had lived.

International aid agencies estimate about half the 84,500 officially listed as dead were youngsters but only partial information has been collected on the number of orphans as the Department of Social Welfare and foreign groups continue tracing victims.

UNICEF spokesman Zafrin Chowdhury said the agency has identified 428 separated and unaccompanied children among survivors by the end of June. Clements said that in one village, three of out 10 children he spoke to had lost their parents.

"I don't think this number represents the whole picture, but I have been to different villages in the delta, where a lot of children have lost their fathers, mothers or both," Clements said.

With one of the world's worst health care systems and few social services, Myanmar's government orphanages offer minimal care, and the regime, which exercises tight control over the population, restricts and sometimes punishes private humanitarian efforts.

The one saving grace is an abiding tradition of the closely knit, extended family in which orphans like Twe Zin Win and her sisters are lovingly taken into the homes of relatives.

"My lost daughter has left me her children and I will try to take care of them," said Twe Zin Win's grandmother. And in turn the 12-year-old sacrifices to help her sisters.

"Usually when I sing the song that my mother used to sing they fall asleep more easily," she says. "The song starts with `Oh my children, fall into sleep. Whoever you will become, you must always be brave.' At night they only sleep if I sing that song." http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gFgoPfMRftfTKxUu_gotkZtqV1HQD91T44TG0

2008 Jul 14