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Drawing out children's trauma in quake-hit Italy
Amatrice, Italy (AFP) Aug 28, 2016

When death comes to stay: one Italian village's story
Saletta, Italy (AFP) Aug 27, 2016 - Nowhere was hit harder by the earthquake that brought death and devastation to a remote corner of central Italy this week than Saletta.

And if you listen to the locals, the tiny mountain hamlet is never going to recover from the wounds it has suffered.

In a region which already has its fair share of abandoned villages, that is now the future beckoning for this one, they say.

Fewer than 20 people live full-time in the picturesque hamlet. On Wednesday, with the population temporarily swollen at the height of Italy's summer holiday season, 22 people died.

Stefania Nobile, a petite, white-haired resident, survived. But she doubts the village will.

"The place has been razed to the ground, there's nothing left, nothing," she told AFPTV.

"It's a tragedy, there's nothing left and we don't think it has a future," she said of the tiny locality which lies just north of the tourist town of Amatrice.

"Who would come and spend money here to rebuild?

"It's a shame because it's an amazing area with a beautiful park, people who came to visit from northern Italy and Tuscany for walking holidays."

- 'It's over' -

Marco Beltrame, a lanky 28-year-old who lost his aunt and uncle in the earthquake, agrees.

"The hamlet is dead," he said.

"No-one's going to think about Saletta, they'll only think about Amatrice because Amatrice is big. Saletta will disappear like so many tiny places. It's over."

Beltrame said he might easily have been among the victims.

"I was supposed to have come up that night but didn't at the last minute.

"When I heard about the quake, I rushed here. That house there -- the one that's nothing but a mass of twisted stones -- is my aunt and uncle's house. They never left it, they didn't make it."

Saletta is the kind of place that could easily disappear. It essentially consists of one road loosely associated with a handful of houses dotted about higher up in the hills.

The only apparent communal space is a wooden bus stop, where a handful of survivors shelter from the baking sun while civil protection workers busy themselves sorting provisions in a field on the other side of the road.

- Residents mainly grandparents -

A bit further on, a man was glumly tidying bits of rubble at the entrance to his half-destroyed property, his deflated body language suggesting he was wondering if it was really worth the effort.

In a nearby vegetable patch, the tomatoes have ripened nicely but no-one will ever taste them.

In the garden of the B&B Saletta, washing hung out to dry before the quake was still blowing gently in the breeze.

If Saletta had a focal point, this was perhaps it and now it has gone, along with three people who were trapped inside the half of the building that collapsed.

According to local accounts, one of the dead was a young man who had come up the night before the quake to join his girlfriend and her parents on holiday.

Such bad luck is hard to bounce back from, Stefania Nobile says.

"The inhabitants here were mainly grandparents whose families came to visit from the big cities, especially Rome, in the summer months," she said.

"There could be as many as 250 people here at the height of summer, but fortunately many had left.

"Of the permanent residents, everyone knew everyone of course. There were elderly couples, really good people.

"I don't think any of them survived."

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."

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