AFTER THE TSUNAMI, ACEH ORPHANS STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
Banda Aceh, Indonesia
LILIB BUKTI VILLAGE, Indonesia -- About two dozen boys sat down on the wooden floor inside a stilted hut, joking and cheering, sometimes even hitting one another, just like most boys do.
"Don't take my sandals, please!" pleaded one teenager while younger ones jeered at him. Some other young children played badminton in the compound. Another teenager quietly smoked a cigarette in a corner, smiling and asking the others to keep quiet: "Please don't tell the teachers!"
These children might be cheerful but they share a common stunning experience. They survived the tsunami that hit the land of the Aceh in northern Sumatra on Dec. 26.
The 9.0 Richter tremor shook Indian Ocean on the western coast of Sumatra that morning. Fifteen minutes later, the sea waves swallowed hundreds of villages and small towns, killing more than 200,000 people, which included these boys' fathers or mothers or siblings and in most cases, all of their loved ones.
Now they are living in a Muslim orphanage in the village of Lilib Bukti, about 20 kilometers south of Banda Aceh. It has a compound with several wooden huts surrounded by green paddy fields. At the center is a wooden mosque where the students have their prayers and the Koran recital in the evenings.
"When the tsunami hit, my mamak (mother) took me from my playing. Mamak said, 'Quick, quick, run'," said Abdul Hanan, a 10-year-old boy, who came to this orphanage with his nine-year-old brother Najimuddin.
Their father, just like most villagers in their village in Lamno, about 200 kilometers south of Banda Aceh, was working in their farm. He did not realize that the tsunami had swallowed his fishing village.
"Mamak held Mawardi, our baby brother, in her arms. Najimuddin and I ran with her. I soon ran faster than Mamak when the water began to appear," said Abdul Hanan. "We ran, we ran but the water kept chasing us."
"Mamak asked me to take over Mawardi. She was exhausted. Mamak asked my brothers and me to go into a three-story building. I went inside, but returned and helped Mamak. I asked Najimuddin to bring our brother."
"When we climbed the stair, I was followed by Najimuddin, the baby, and Mamak. But Mamak cannot make it. Mamak was swallowed by the water."
"The waves kept crashing into the building. We were swallowed by the seawater. Najimuddin lost the baby. When I appeared, I met Najimuddin still inside the building. Another woman grabbed a wooden plank and we managed to float."
"I can swim; all children in Lamno can swim. So we swam to reach the upper level," said Najimuddin proudly.
"A water buffalo, however, kicked my butt," said Abdul Hanan.
"When the seawater receded, I tried to find Mamak. Father later found us. He sent us here because our village was ruined. We have no house. Until now I don't see Mamak. Maybe she went away with the waves," he said.
Abdul Hanan's story is a typical account among the newcomers in this orphanage. The 18-year-old Muhammad Efendi took some time to look at the beach because many fish were stranded when the tremors sucked up the seawater. Efendi, however, took to his bicycle and pedalled as fast as he could to escape the waves that began to swallow the beaches. Efendi did not lose his parents, but lost a stepsister.
Taufik, a 19-year-old boy, ran with his father into a two-story house. His father, however, did not make to the second level. "It is sad that we must bear it. Many other kids also lost their fathers," said Taufik.
It is still not clear how the tsunami and the loss of parents and relatives would affect these boys. Abdul Hanan, Efendi and Taufik seemed to be normal kids, making play groups and sometimes fighting with others.
According to Faisal Ali, the Muslim cleric who heads the Mahyal Ulum orphanage, his boys-only institution received more than 200 children after the tsunami. "Many still have their fathers or mothers, but quite a number lost both sides."
He predicted that the boys will have psychological traumas. "We still could not predict it, because they are still new in this orphanage. We want to teach them to recite the Koran in the evening and to enroll into a school in the neighborhood."
But difficulties with communications and inadequate coordination among aid groups left this orphanage struggling to feed new arrivals. The Indonesian government also does not help much with its narrow-minded nationalism; it keeps asking the "foreigners" to respect Indonesia's sovereignty and gave them a deadline of three months to help Aceh at a time when their helicopters are mostly needed to deliver aid to the isolated areas. Aceh has also been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to the Indonesian military operations against the Free Acheh Movement, which has been fighting for independence since 1976. More than 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the rebellion.. The Indonesian government is not popular in many Aceh villages.
Faisal said he initially had to accept credit in a village store just to get toothpaste and soap. His orphanage, however, got some help from the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia. The Banda Aceh-based Aswaja Foundation is also planning to channel a donation of Rp 100,000 per month per kid from the Artha Graha business group in Jakarta. That is around US$12 per month.
"We need shoes, school uniforms and some pocket money to pay the public buses," said Taufik. Efendi said they need to buy the schoolbooks. Abdul Hanan complained about the mosquitoes. They also need blankets and a change of clothes.
When asked about what he remembers the most about his mother and his brother, Abdul Hanan replied, "Uh oh, I never knew her name. I just called her Mamak."
What does he remember about his youngest brother? "I remember my brother because I once punched him. He is nowhere now. The sea swallowed Mamak and Mawardi," he said.
American Reporter Correspondent Andreas Harsono is a former Neiman International Fellow and veteran journalist based in Jakarta.