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A year later: Tsunami Indonesia

Rebuilt school in IndonesiaMedicine for the Invisible Wounds of the Children of Aceh

26 Dec 2005 By Carola Vogl from Meulaboh (West Aceh)

Eti* is scared of rain. When the wind whistles through the tin roofs, she curls up in a corner of her wooden hut, shaking. She hasn’t been back to the beach to play with her friends like she did on 26 December a year ago. Nothing has been the same since.

Eti does not remember much of that day when she was playing with her sister near her father's fishing boat after he had come back from the sea after a long night of fishing.

Somebody screamed, "Air naik!", ‘the water is coming at us!’. They had no time to run away. The last thing she remembers is the huge black wave which swallowed her, thrashed her about like clothes in a washing machine, and then spat her out one and a half kilometres inland, completely naked and covered in scratches, but otherwise unharmed. Eti's sister had similar luck; she also survived the tsunami with only minor injuries. Her father did not. No one has seen the 34-year-old man since the morning of 26 December, though Eti and her sister still pray every day to Allah that He bring their father back to them one day.

"The children were especially affected by the tsunami. Many died in the flood, and those that survived saw the unimaginable. They lost their parents and their best friends. Many of the children are severely traumatised; they are scared of rain, storms and wind. They relive this day in their dreams again and again; they dream of the dirty water that washed them away, of the ruins, of the stench," says Yudi Kartiwa, SOS Children's Villages project director for the West Aceh region.

"When we arrived here in January 2005 everything was torn apart. There were no more schools, no distractions, no fun, only devastation and mourning. We saw that there was a need for a special psycho-social programme for the surviving children in addition to the reconstruction of houses and infrastructure. This is how 'Play and Learn' came about. We went to the emergency shelters every day together with psychologists from the organisation Ibu4Aceh and played and sang with the children, had them draw pictures and write poetry, in order to express themselves and share their feelings about what they had experienced. They were also given English, maths and Koran lessons, to give them back a bit of school routine and stimulate their minds," says Kartiwa as she describes their work in these exceptional circumstances.

A wooden hut hardly bigger than a shed, with little benches and a blackboard and barely enough space for the children's group in the refugee camp, is what the people there, themselves needy, built out of the remains of their homes. The grounds in front of the hut serve as a playground and are used for teaching as well.

Eti and her friends from the wooden shacks hold hands. They form a small circle together with two young psychologists from the Ibu4Aceh team. They sing a song that is often played on the radio in Aceh, called Wate Na Geumpa, or "When the big earthquake comes". The words of the song prepare them, in a playful manner, for what should be done in the case of an emergency. The tectonic plates are always rubbing together in this part of the world and no one here believes that the earthquake in November will be the last. "When the big earthquake comes we will remain calm. We will leave our home together and run to the mountains. We will be prepared and have a flashlight, water and a blanket ready. When the big earthquake comes we will know what to do. And when the sea pulls back, we will not go fishing, but will sit on a high place and calmly wait until it is safe again. Then we will go back."

Fitriana Herarti is a psychologist and leads the psycho-social programme of Ibu4Aceh in Melaboh, West Aceh. Ibu means "mother" in Indonesian, and the name is supposed to express what the organisation offers to the people in the crisis region: help regardless of religion and skin colour. The committed young woman explains the principles underlying her work with the children in the emergency shacks: "We first have to win the trust of the children. Only when they trust us can they believe that we can help them, and they will share their feelings and their pain with us. When the children finally do open up and tell the others in a group about what they have experienced, we remain in the background. We encourage the children to console and advise each other, and in this way find solutions to their problems themselves. They all share a similar fate, only it is easier for some of them to deal with it than others, they have no more nightmares and dreams. That gives the other children hope."

In treating a case of trauma, so-called trauma intervention, Fitriana and her co-workers are very cautious: "Many children are still very afraid of the sea. With these children we go to the beach. We let them look at the sea from the safety of the car and tell them that it does not only bring destruction, but that it can also be calm and harmless. The following week we go to the beach again and some of us get out and play ball. The children are free to get out of the car and play with us or to watch the others play from the car. Whatever they decide, we do not leave them alone. Bit by bit and week by week, their fears decrease, and limits are overcome. A child may panic and break out in a sweat upon seeing the sea, and a few weeks later, in the best of cases, the child will be happily playing ball with us and his or her friends. I do not believe that time heals all wounds, as is often said. If someone has experienced a trauma, intervention is required if the wound is to heal."

Eti is lucky again. The psychologists will work at healing her trauma; they will help her overcome her fears step by step and free herself of the agonising nightmares. Eti knows another song that she and the other children from the wooden huts learned from the psychologists. It has a funny name, a word the children had never heard before: trauma. The words are simple and the children understand them well: "Let's talk about our grief, about our anger and our silence. Do not hide your pain and do not feel guilty, talk about it until it heals; that is the medicine for the wound left behind by the trauma."
*Name changed to protect the child’s identity

The House Builders

Yusdiana is beaming with happiness. She has found bliss again. Three months ago she got married again for the second time. The lucky husband's name is Saleh. He is a tall, lean and reticent man. Yusdiana lost her first husband and three of her four children about a year ago when the tsunami came over the people living in coastal areas.

Only her eldest daughter survived; Ervi was floating unconsciously among the debris and was saved from drowning by a neighbour who pulled her out of the water onto his house's roof.

Saleh suffered a similar fate. Within minutes, he lost his wife, his four children and the few things he possessed. When the waves washed away the village of Lambada Lhok, Saleh, a fisherman, was out on the sea. It was in the morning when Saleh, like many times in the past, was asleep lying in the bottom of his boat and was completely dead-beat after a long night of high-sea fishing. Saleh slept so deeply that he did not notice anything when disaster struck completely unexpectedly and put an end to the lives of thousands of people in the region. When he went ashore with his catch the next day, he was trapped in a nightmare; the village where he had spent 50 years of his life, where he was born, where he had married and his children had been born, had been wiped out completely. Everything that was precious to him, everything he loved, had been exterminated within the twinkling of an eye.

Lambada Lhok. The name brings up pictures of music and light-heartedness in Europeans. Nothing could be more remote from the truth; Lambada Lhok was among those villages on the northern tip of Sumatra which was most heavily struck by the tsunami of 26 December 2004. Only about 700 out of 2,000 residents survived this day. Numerous children, who had characterised village life before, died; only twelve children survived the sea surge disaster. The village's mosque and minaret somehow miraculously remained untouched.

Yusdiana is happy. In about two weeks she will finally leave the emergency shelter and move to a new home with Saleh and Ervi. SOS Children's Villages is building a house for her and more than 150 other families in Lambada Lhok; a proper, solid house made of bricks, with foundations and a strong roof truss; a house that can weather the storms and will give them a feeling of protection.

Wherever you look there is hustle and bustle, and the noise of planing, hammering and plastering. In between tents and wooden huts, which were put up in quickly after the tsunami and which have housed many people for the last eleven months, new houses are growing. Thirty new homes have already been completed and equipped, and dwellers have already moved in.

Rusli, Siti and Chairil were lucky; their house was one of the first to be completed. Rusli and Siti are another young couple. Rusli was a widower when he met young widow Siti and took her as his second wife six months ago. Only Chairil, one of Rusli's five children, survived the sea surge; Siti lost all of her four children. Tears run down her cheeks when she talks about what happened with a whispering voice. Life goes on, she says, and she is grateful for the pretty new home and for the son her husband has brought into their marriage. Siti has high hopes. She would like to make use of a loan provided by SOS Children's Villages to open a small shop where she wants to sell oil, rice and household goods. Siti wants to make her own money and wants to be independent.

What is it that drives people who have lived through such a tragedy like that of December last year, to move on? What is it that gives Yusdiana and Saleh, Rusli and Siti the courage to take a chance on life and love again? How can we help those who are not so strong and courageous?

Reconstruction of destroyed homes is top priority there; still, finding your way back to a normal life requires more than a roof over your head. The people of Lambada Lhok need work as a cure for their souls; work distracts them from what they have endured, and helps them break the barrier of numbness that put a spell on so many of them. However, work is scarce there. Washing away the fishing boats, shops and restaurants, the waves also wiped out the people's sources of income. Experts agree on the fact that it will take at least another two years until Aceh's infrastructure has fully recovered. The trail of destruction left by the tsunami will take a long time to put right.

In Lambada Lhok, a women's initiative fights the numbness. At the "SOS Ladies Club", women from the village regularly meet; they cook and bake biscuits and sell them for a small profit. They elected Yusdiana as their spokeswoman and Yusdiana is strongly committed to fighting for the interests of women. SOS Children's Villages has provided the men from the village with two fishing boats. Together and without fear they once more set out onto the sea that has been feeding them for generations.

Yusdiana slips into her tent. Upon returning she is wearing a lilac dress and the traditional headgear. She wants to look pretty for the picture that will show her with Saleh in their future home. The strongest quake in the history of mankind had brought grief and destruction to Lambada Lhok, but life and love have returned to this place.


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