Friday, February 04, 2005

Aceh Children Recall Sea 'Swallowing' Their Parents

Andreas Harsono

LILIB BUKTI, Indonesia, Feb 4 (IPS) - Around two dozen boys mill around several wooden huts on stilts, which serve as an orphanage here, in this hamlet 20 kilometers south of the Acehnese capital Banda Aceh. Though they play and joke with one another, they share a common fate. All are survivors of the Dec. 26 killer tsunami, and all of them lost either one or both parents to the killer waves.

''Don't take my sandals, please,'' said one youngster, while a few were jeering at him. Some others were engrossed in a game of badminton in the compound.

In another corner, one teenager was sheepishly smoking a cigarette while asking those around him to keep quiet.

According to Faisal Ali, the Muslim cleric who heads the Mahyal Ulum orphanage, his boys- only institution had received more than 200 children after the tsunami.

He predicted that many of them would be suffering mental trauma having seen their loved ones die when the waves swept away their villages along the coastline.

''At the orphanage, we try to keep their minds busy so that they don't think too much about the tsunami,'' Faisal told IPS.

''We're teaching them to recite the Quran in the evening so that soon they would be able to get themselves enrolled in the neighbourhood school,'' he added.

The epicenter of the Dec. 26 undersea quake was at Meulaboh in western Aceh. That spawned tsunamis that hit the coastlines of a dozen countries in South and South-east Asia killing over 220,000.

In Aceh, more than 70 percent of the inhabitants of some coastal villages are reported to have died.

The official death toll is at 111,171, while more than 127,000 others remain missing. The exact number of victims will probably never be known.

''When the tsunami hit, my Mamak (mother) pulled me by the hand and all of us just ran,'' 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 Lamno, about 200 kilometers south of Banda Aceh, was working in their farm. He did not realise 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 Hanan. ''We ran and ran but the water kept chasing us.''

''Mamak then asked me to carry 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,'' he added.

''When we climbed the stairs, I was followed by Najimuddin, the baby, and Mamak. But Mamak could not make it. She was swallowed by the water,'' Hanan recalled.

Then, things just started getting worse.

''The waves kept on inundating the building and the seawater was swallowing us. Najimuddin then lost the baby,'' said Hanan.

Luckily for them, a woman -- who also tried to take shelter in the building - managed to grab a large wooden plank. All of them then held on tight to the plank and managed to float away.

''When the seawater receded, I tried to find Mamak and baby Mawardi. I couldn't see them. Maybe they went away with the waves,'' said Hanan with tears welling up in his eyes. ''Father later found us. He sent us here because our village was ruined. We have no house.''

Hanan's story is a typical account among the newcomers to the Mahyal Ulum orphanage.

Last week the World Health Organisation said almost 500,000 tsunami survivors were facing mental health problems in Indonesia's hardest-hit Aceh province, with some 200,000 or more likely to require psychiatric care.

''We are seeing children petrified by seeing water in a tub or cowering when large airplanes are flying overhead because they sound like rushing water,'' said Randall Kyes, a University of Washington psychologist volunteering in the capital Banda Aceh.

''People are past the tears and the immediate loss, and now reflection sets in and trauma is beginning to surface. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people, and that's just in the province of Aceh,'' he added.

Added Kyes: ''The real concern is for children. So many lost their families and have no support to reach out to for help. They really suffered twice, first the loss of parents and siblings and now coping with surviving the tsunami.''

For Muslim cleric Faisal, it has been a real challenge trying to cope with the newcomers to his orphanage.

''We could not even afford to buy soap and toothpaste for these new children. I had to get them on credit from the village store,'' he said.

Lately, however, the orphanage received some help from Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, and Artha Graha, a widely diversified business group in Jakarta.

Hanan complained about the mosquitoes and wanted some clean clothes for himself and his brother Najimuddin.

When asked about what he remembers the most about his mother and his baby brother, Hanan replied, ''Uh oh, I never knew her name. I just called her Mamak. I remember my brother because I once punched him. He is nowhere now.''

''Both of them are now gone. The sea swallowed them,'' he said repeatedly. (END/2005)

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