Inside a shady tent in the middle of quake-hit Amatrice, a little girl hunches over a table drawing a picture of the soaring mountains overlooking this small Italian town.
For her, the drawing showed the only thing that remained constant after Wednesday’s earthquake which brought death and destruction a string of remote hilltop towns and villages in central Italy.
Not far from the morgue where families have been identifying their dead, a group of children are playing in a tent set up by Save the Children, using drawing as a way to express the trauma they have experienced.
“This little girl drew the mountains and she told us that they were the mountains of Amatrice, the most beautiful in the world,” Save the Children spokeswoman Danilo Giannese told AFP.
“Then she said; ‘Everything collapsed, except the mountains’.”
That drawing had particularly affected those working for the NGO, which has set up a play area where children can recover some sense of the normalcy which has been lost through the traumatic events of recent days.
The idea is to create a space where children can be with their peers and express themselves through play and drawing, under the supervision of educators trained to handle emergency situations.
It also gives the parents some time to process their grief, to deal with pressing problems and start planning for the future, knowing their children are enjoying a bit of peace in a safe place, the charity says.
“These are children who have suffered shock: suddenly, they had to abandon their homes and since then, they have only seen destruction,” explains Giannese.
A place of safety
Many of the local children were sent away to relatives or friends in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly quake, in which nearly 300 people died, while others remain in hospital.
But around 15 children are currently visiting the tent which is in a camp set up by the Civil Protection agency.
Inside the large light-grey tent, the children feel at home.
Sitting on chunky plastic chairs around a small round table, several children between the ages of 4 to 8 take crayons out of a box and start drawing.
Nearby are red plastic boxes of toy cars and Lego. Outside is a small blackboard easel with a chalk picture scrawled on it.
“It’s a safe place, a protected place, where they can also find a bit of peace rather than being outside in all this dust,” explains a volunteer wearing a red top with a white Save the Children logo on it.
Though they play and even laugh, the children have been as badly affected by the disaster as the adults.
The three worst-hit areas, Amatrice, Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, were home to hundreds of children with many more in the area on holiday.
All of them were affected in some way by the traumatic events.
“Around 500 children were in the area affected by the quake and unfortunately there are many children among the victims,” says Giannese.
Important to talk
Although these ones have survived, the trauma is far from over.
“Today we have to tell a child that his father has died. It is very difficult moment,” explains Ernesto Caffo, a child psychologist and president of Telefono Azzurro, which runs an emergency hotline for children where they can talk to someone in confidence.
Its volunteers have set up their own play tent in a small square in Amatrice where survivors and rescuers have set up around 20 igloo tents between swings and slides.
The association is also offering psychological support.
“People are in mourning, we need to reassure them, both the adults and the children,” says Caffo.
“For a parent, it is important to be able to talk to children about the death of a loved one. But their tears can give (the parents) a sense of insecurity,” he explains.
Sitting on a blanket laid out on the grass, a little girl plays with a princess castle and a plastic spade.
“This morning, a little girl woke up crying because she wanted to go back to her own bedroom,” says a TA volunteer.
“Inside the tents, children are sometimes afraid that if there is an aftershock, everything will come down on their heads.”
Back to school?
Once the children’s immediate needs are met, it will soon be time to think about the upcoming school year, which begins in mid-September in Italy.
But with the local school in ruins, the question is where.
“The authorities are studying different solutions, but it is likely that school will take place in the tents,” says Caffo.
“For children, going back to school will be very important because they can talk with each other and tell their story about what happened.”