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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Evil stalks smallest survivors

Madhumitha, 5, waits in line along with other children for the morning meal Saturday at a tsunami relief shelter in Nagappattinam, in the southern  state of Tamil Nadu, India. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
DeNeen L. Brown Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Children for sale.

After such a devastating act of nature, God, science or whatever, how could predators move in to hurt children left homeless and hungry and vulnerable?

The incomprehensible becomes more horrible as we read reports of child smugglers and pedophiles preying on the devastated areas after the Indian Ocean tsunami. An e-mail advertises that hundreds of children orphaned by the water are available for sale or rent.

Those who have long worked in disaster zones say human predators are part of a pattern. The disaster strikes, people die, people mourn, compassion and aid roll in – and so do the predators.

It raises questions about the nature of humanity and its capacity for evil.

“It is definitely evil, evil in the way we think,” says Elaine Hanson, academic director of the International Center for Disaster Psychology at the University of Denver. “A child needs not to be abused and a woman needs to know she can go through life and not be raped.

“It is evil.”

Says Peter Van Arsdale, a lecturer at the University of Denver who is writing a book on refugees and human rights: “We are fearful that some ne’er-do-wells will take advantage of women and children or traffic children to other parts of Thailand or take advantage of people who are desperate. A few people will be raped; it does happen in these disasters. … It is a sad statement on humanity.”

The renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that people are basically good, trustworthy, loving. Evil occurs, he wrote, when humans are not able to satisfy their basic need for air, water, food, sleep and sex. Once those needs are met, people need safety, security, stability and consistency in a world that is chaotic.

In chaos, people act in ways that are incomprehensible to those who are looking at the situation from positions of comfort.

Rape and molestation are extreme ways for some to deal with extreme stress, such as “seeing bodies on the beach and having homes destroyed,” says Hanson. “It is their coping mechanism. When people become very stressed, they don’t behave in a way that is acceptable by the society at large. … Sometimes what people need to do is forget about it and numb out. Some people resort to drinking or sex. If they are attracted to children, they will carry it out.”

Children are preyed upon “because they are particularly vulnerable populations after any war or disaster, anything that ravages society’s structure,” she says. “When things are working well, they are protected. … When structures fall, when the family falls, lawlessness prevails and they become vulnerable because the forces that protect them are gone.”

Rape becomes a problem as people move to camps, says Van Arsdale. “Camp administrators, and I am not criticizing them, throw people together.” Some populations are separated by curtains, some by ropes. Others not at all. “I’m sure it is well intended, but camps are chaotic, whether they be refugee camps or long-standing camps.” Even if a camp is well organized, the lack of social structure allows for little protection.

Van Arsdale says the protection of children and women should be a priority among relief agencies – maybe by giving them separate camps. “The … things most often thought about are proper sanitation, water supply, food supply and shelter,” he says. “What I’m suggesting is … social structure needs to be a factor in relief.”

Dan Toole, director of emergency programs at UNICEF, has another explanation for the atrocities. “Why is it happening? Because we have had problems with exploitation of children in Asia for decades, in terms of child labor and sexual exploitation in the tourist industry for years and years. Something that has been in the region for a long time. Why now? Adults take advantage of children in times of stress and emergency. Am I totally surprised it is happening now? No. Am I horrified it is happening? Yes.”

It happens in Asia, Africa and Latin America, places where there have been frequent civil wars, widespread poverty and natural disasters. Part of the problem, Toole says, is AIDS. “People seek younger and younger girls to avoid infection. A number of young girls are being molested to avoid HIV. It is the sinister face of the HIV epidemic.

“In Africa, there is a belief if you sleep with younger women, there is a myth among some groups that you can be cured,” he says.

UNICEF has pushed for more police training and protection of children and a delay in adoptions. “We are stressing so much the need for tracing of families,” Toole says.

Two and a half weeks ago, the sea heaved, the waves strangled, the people ran, houses transformed into watery graves. Parents were swept away and more than 35,000 children were orphaned. Now, traffickers are prowling.

In North Sumatra, Indonesia, according to a news report, a couple tried to take a 5-year-old boy away from a refugee camp. The couple argued they had the right to take custody of the boy. But when police became suspicious and questioned them more, the couple confessed they were not the boy’s parents. The man disappeared. Police suspect the man and woman may have been paid by child traffickers to get the boy, who had been orphaned by the water only to be delivered into another treacherous territory with predators of another kind.