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Earthquake orphans thousands; Pakistan promises care for all

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Before Mohamed Sajid was bundled onto a rescue helicopter from earthquake-ravaged Muzaffarabad, his father scrawled his son's name -- and his own -- on a piece of paper and stuffed it into the boy's shirt pocket.

Five days later, 13-year-old Mohamed clung to that piece of paper at Rawalpindi General Hospital -- a small slip of security in his unsettled life.

"Only my father can take me," said Mohamed, showing the paper. "I will wait for him."

Since the Oct. 8 earthquake, more than a thousand children have been evacuated from the stricken region of Kashmir for medical care. Thousands more have been orphaned or separated from families, and authorities worry they might fall prey to child traffickers.

The threat is most dire for infants whose parents cannot be traced, who lack any identification, and who are isolated in areas where those around them have no way of finding extended family members.

The issue also surfaced after the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster that hit 11 nations around the Indian Ocean. In the best-known case, a 4-month-old nicknamed "Baby 81" was claimed by nine couples until DNA tests proved he was Abilass Jeyarajah and he was returned to his parents.

Even before the quake, the U.S. State Department had labeled Pakistan "a source, transit, and destination country for trafficked persons" while the International Labor Organization estimates that close to 100,000 people are trafficked in the country each year.

Children have been a particular target for use as laborers and in the sex industry. They often are smuggled out of Pakistan to oil-rich Middle Eastern countries for use as camel riders, preferred for the dangerous racing job because they are light.

The smugglers are generally people posing as parents or close relatives. Over the past several months, about 400 children have been repatriated to Pakistan from the United Arab Emirates as the countries work to combat the problem.

In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday evening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said his government would take "full responsibility" for the orphans. He also promised state aid for widows.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said earlier that all children orphaned by the earthquake would be cared for by the government and no non-relatives would be allowed to adopt any of them.

Adoption is extremely uncommon in Pakistan's tight-knit, clan-based culture, in which tradition requires relatives to take in orphans from within the extended family. That safety net could fray, however, in families that have been hardest hit and can't afford to feed extra mouths.

"The government is concerned," said Dr. Anjum Javed, director of the children's ward at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad. "There was chaos first, with many people running about, but now we are checking everyone."

Javed said the seven orphans in his ward were all placed in a separate wing of the building that is filled with injured children. The hospital has 925 child patients, but most are accompanied by parents or other relatives.

Guards protect the wing. All children arriving alone are photographed and then quickly taken to the secure section, Javed said.

"If you don't have the proper identification, you cannot have your child," said Javed. "We will do our utmost to keep them off the hands of kidnappers."

At Rawalpindi General Hospital, children like Mohamed who are brought in alone are kept separate, with volunteers on hand to play with them -- and keep a watchful eye.

Pinning down the actual numbers of kidnapped orphans or other children is difficult, particularly in South Asia, said Save the Children child protection officer Deb Barry, who came from Afghanistan to assess the situation in Pakistan.

But the problem -- and the anxiety -- is very real, she said. "It always has been an issue. There has been a fear of children being kidnapped."


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