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Mongolia: Dzud takes toll on children's minds

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Tserensonom is a herder who lives with his wife and nine children in the soum center. He used to live in the country looking after his twenty cows, and seventy sheep and goats. However, they had to move to soum center after the dzud claimed all their livestock in the winter of 2000-2001. Since then they have had no source of income. Three daughters study in the soum school. Two boys -- 14 and 18 year-olds are away from their home, looking after a luckier herder's animals in order to help their family.
This is the situation that many rural families found themselves in the aftermath of the dzud disaster. In the last two years, UNICEF has been working closely with the Government of Mongolia to help overcome the loss caused by dzud - combination of heavy snow, low temperatures and consequences of drought in summer. This winter, these efforts have been continued in the area of psychosocial impact of dzud on children and their families. Children who witness mass death of livestock and experience sudden impoverishment, suffer not only from cold, hunger and exhausting toil, but also from the daily grim pictures of dead animals and dispirited adults. To help address this aspect of dzud disaster, Mr. Thomas Shafer, EAPRO Consultant on Psychosocial Trauma visited the country at the end of February 2003.

UNICEF team visited northern aimags of Selenge and Tuv where snow cover was 150-200cm thick. From the interviews with rural children, it was concluded that so far, Mongolian children have been coping well. Moreover, some children expressed even more eagerness to pursue education because ", when we have lost our livestock, it is important that we are educated so that we are able to help out our families." Nonetheless, based on bitter experience of the last two years, it was clear that March will be a tough month for herders and their children.

In order to discuss action to prevent psychosocial trauma among children in dzud-affected areas, UNICEF initiated a round table discussion with participation of experts on psychosocial trauma from the Medical and Pedagogical Universities, Mongolian Red Cross, Center for Mental Health, World Vision International and the National Board for Children. Speaking there Mr. Thomas Shafer indicated that veterans of Viet Nam war, children of Kosovo, and children affected by dzud have experienced similar symptoms of Post-Traumatic Syndrome (PTS): disbelief, anger or frustration, great sadness, etc. He underlined that it is vital to create a place in the middle of disaster where children feel safe, emphasizing that in order to prevent or minimize PTS, children need to be distracted from disaster scenes and if possible, their normal routines such as schooling should be maintained.

On the other hand, since the local people are the ones to render psychological "first aid", it is necessary to train doctors, feldshers, social workers and teachers in interviewing techniques, stress management, and other techniques of handling pressing situations. The Consultant recommended that the life skills training for adolescents include a component on survival in order to prepare children for disaster situations. The round table discussion concluded to establish a working group to relief psychosocial trauma among children under the leadership of UNICEF.