The Epicentre of Grief

Next to the airport road is one of the cemeteries. Like all the others this one is not really a cemetery but a mass grave. Around 2,500 bodies were unceremoniously shovelled into this one in the rush to stave of disease. There are no markers. There was barely time to dig the pits and bury the bodies; identifying them was a dignity for the dead the living could not afford to buy.

Linda asks if we want to stop for a look and we say we do. She is more comfortable about this than we are. But then, Linda has faced horrors we cannot imagine. She has hauled bodies from the stinking slime and watched the tractors loading and emptying the shovels. She has heard the mothers weeping and closed her ears to them, lest compassion for a few distract her from caring for the many. She’s half our age but already possesses the sort of life maturity we (God help us) will never know.

So it’s not Linda but Sabar our driver whom we watch from the sides of our eyes, anxious that our stopover at this graveyard does not cause him unnecessary pain.

Eager young banana plants and feisty bougainvilleas compete for his attention, but Sabar’s eyes do not pause to rest on them. They search the field for something else. His face is expressionless, as if waiting for a sign, some confirmation that they are buried here – his wife and three children.

They might be here. But they could be anywhere. Sabar will never know how they died or where they lie now. This unfinished grieving, repeated hundreds of thousands of times over, is just one of the bitter legacies of the Boxing Day tsunami.

Here in Banda Aceh nearly everyone has lost something of great value: a loved one, their home, their livelihood, their trust in nature or in God, their confidence in the future. Many people have lost all these things simultaneously. How do so many people in one place at one time find voice for their own personal grief and try to move on towards healing?

On the first anniversary of the tsunami, Sabar built a small monument at the Christian cemetery in Banda Aceh, as a memorial to his loved ones lost. They are almost certainly not buried here, but he feels that the Christian cemetery is the place he can best remember them, releasing them into the arms of God, wherever they came to rest.

‘How do you go on’, I wonder as I watch Sabar’s sorrowful eyes, ‘when you do not know what happened to them or where they are buried? Husband and father, how do you tell them you’re sorry for not being there to protect them, to hold them as they died?

‘What can I do to help?’Linda Sianturi is a member of the biggest Lutheran church in Indonesia, the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP), with around 3 million members. She developed an Australian connection when she attended a Giraffe youth leadership training course in 2002 as a participant and then Giraffe International in 2006 as a leader.

When news of the devastation in Banda Aceh began to filder through the Medan, 400 kilometers to the south, Linda’s immediate reaction was, ‘What can I do to help?’

HKBP leaders responded urgently to the crisis, mobilising relief teams to travel to Banda Aceh, which was the closest urban centre to the earthquakes epicentre, 250 kilometres to the west. As a leader of HKBP young people, Linda organised teams of youth to join the relief effort.

‘The thing that struck me most was the silence’, she recalls. ‘There were no cars, trucks or motorbikes that you’d expect to hear in a city of this size. There were no shops open, nobody buying and selling.

‘Occasionally you’d see somebody walking alone, picking through the rubble, or just sitting, staring with vacant eyes. There was just this stunned, shocked silence.’

Linda and her team of young people based themselves at Banda Aceh’s only HKBP church, which had one wall partially knocked out but otherwise was intact. Taking great personal risks with their physical and mental health, the young people worked side-by-side in the mud and filth with HKBP leaders and other church members hauling 89 bodies out of the church and its surrounds and doing whatever had to be done to clean up one almighty stinking mess.

‘At the time I don’t think many of the young people took on board the gravity of what they were doing; they just did what they had to do’, says Linda. ‘It was only after they had returned to Medan, when they had time to reflect, that the shock and the burden of the mass grief in Banda Aceh really struck them.’

As well as physically cleaning up the mess, Linda also worked with surviving Lutheran church members to compile lists of the dead and missing, and assisted with trauma relief. It was during this time that she met Sabar.

Meeting individual people (not just anonymous masses) in terrible pain made an impact on Linda. ‘It was important to come up here immediately after the tsunami to provide urgent relief assistance’, she says. ‘But once I was here it was easy to see that the community was going to take a long time to recover from all the personal traumas. So I decided to stay and see what I could do to help for the longer term.’

She enlisted in a trauma counselling course run by the United Evangelical Mission (UEM), an interdenominational aid and development agency based in Germany. After she had been working for UEM for a year, she was asked to take on the role of director of Pue Woe Seumangat, a trauma counselling centre for the youngest victims of the tsunami.

In June this year Glenice Hartwich and I visited Linda at the centre, where we met some of her co-workers. Each of them has a tsunami story, of course.

On Boxing Day 2004 Ani, a teacher and now also a volunteer program worker at Pue Woe Seumangat, was at home relaxing with her parents. When they heard the sea roaring they ran for their lives, but like thousands of others they were quickly picked up by the demon wave and carried off to God-knows-where.

Clutching at anything that might save her, Ani eventually landed in the upper fronds of a palm, together with, coincidentally, a young man from her church, the HKBP. They clung to the palm until the water subsided a little and then swam about ten metres to a rooftop.

Ani’s mother survived, too, but not her father. They never found his body.

Two and a half years later, Ani is still living like a refugee in a barracks style of building adjacent to the HKBP church. She hopes that her new house will be finished within six months.

Ani is one of thousands of Acehnese people still living in ‘refugee’ or IDP (internally displaced persons) camps.

Ibu Las, a Roman Catholic and also a teacher now volunteering at the trauma counselling centre, only last month moved into her new house. Before the tsunami she had lived with her husband and three children less than one kilometre from the water’s edge. Down at the harbour, where the worst of the devastation occurred, we saw where Ibu Las’s home has stood. It’s under the water now, the place where she had cooked meals and hung the washing up to dry, where she and her husband had chatted while their children laughed and played. They’re under water, all these places where lives were lived, and where lives were lost all at once one Sunday morning.

Turning your back on that place where Ibu Las and her family used to live, you see in front of you a shocking landmark. A concrete pillar towers over you about 20 metres. The top few metres of concrete have been hammered off by a fierce cruel hand.

The morning the tsunami took the top off that pillar Ibu Las, her husband and two of their three children were in church in the city. Their fourteen-year-old daughter, Uli Adriani, had stayed at home. In the church, the congregation heard the roar of the tsunami and ran for their lives. All of then survived.

It was a week before they found Uli Adriani, who had been washed ten kilometres inland. She had heard the roar before she had seen the wave, but had run only half a kilometre before it reached her. Linda showed us the place where it had caught up with her. It was hard to imagine the terror.

She had grabbed hold of a piece of debris and clung to it for her life, while tossed around in that monster washing machine with trucks and boats and cattle, pieces of houses and yesterday’s Christmas presents. She was in bad shape when they found her, having swallowed massive amounts of contaminated sea water.

Subsequently she developed lung infections and spent several weeks recovering in a hospital in Medan.

But she is alive. This girl who lived across the road from that 20-metre pillar is alive. How can that be?

Miracles like this live side by side with sickening despair. Banda Aceh is like that, this broken city that dares to reach for a future from the midst of unspeakable heartache.

It’s a good thing we are visiting Linda and her team on a Tuesday because we get to accompany them to one of the IDP camps. The Cot Gue camp, seven kilometres outside of Banda Aceh, is a depressing place, consisting of hastily tacked together huts that many Australians would be ashamed to house an animal in. To be fair, though, these huts were never intended to be permanent houses, only temporary places for people to keep out of the rain until something more substantial could be constructed. But that was two and a half years ago, and there are still around sixty families in this camp alone.

As Sabar drives us into the camp, excited children run shouting to greet us. Tuesdays and Thursdays are their favourite days of the week because this is when Linda and her team come to visit. While Glenice heads off to help Ani, Ibu Las, Debora and Sabar with the children’s activities, I chat with a couple of the women, with Linda interpreting.

When Ibu Mariam, her husband and five children heard their neighbours screaming ‘Tsunami!’, they ran towards high ground. All of them survived, but their house was destroyed. Ibu Mariam’s husband, a mechanic, lost his garage and all his tools. He is now working as a labourer, moving rocks, trying to make enough money to feed his family. There is never enough left over to save towards re-building a home for his family or his business to secure their future. Like many others, the family has been reduced to an uncertain hand-to-mouth existence.

Ibu Sadian had three children. When the tsunami rushed into her village, she and her husband were able to hold onto their son, the youngest, but they could only scream in despair as their two daughters were wrenched from their grasp.

They lost their home and livelihood, too. All at once so many losses, their past and their future. Ibu Sadian’s husband, a carpenter, was able to find work with a non-government organisation. So now he’s building homes for other people while his own family lives in a hut in an IDP camp.

Ibu Sadian shows me a picture of her lost daughters. She points to the oldest one, who would now be about fifteen. Linda explains to me that Ibu Sadian recently received an anonymous message that this daughter is alive and is being cared for at an orphanage in Malaysia. But there were no more details and she has been unable to locate the caller.

Linda tells me later that false leads of this kind are fairly common occurrences. ‘It’s not good for grieving parents to hear these stories. It gives them false hope and then they can’t grieve properly. So long as their is the faintest suggestion that their children might be alive they will hold onto that hope. Without a body to see or a place to go to mourn a death, such as a grave, it is hard for people to put their loved ones to rest.

‘This is one of the difficult situations people face here in dealing with their losses. Unless they’ve physically seen the body of their loved ones (and most people here haven’t) there will always be that little voice that whispers, “What if they’re not dead?”. And that is a big impediment to grieving properly and moving on towards healing.’

Another impediment to grieving properly in places of mass trauma such as Banda Aceh is the feeling of many people that their losses are insignificant compared with those of others. Linda explains: ‘If you or I lost a child, we’d expect to receive attention, care and support from our friends and our church family for as it long as it takes to recover from our loss. But here, where just about everyone has experienced a loss of some sort, a lot of people won’t talk about their pain because they think somebody else has suffered much worse than they have. So you have situations here where, say, a mother has lost a child in the tsunami, but she won’t talk about her grief because her neighbour has lost three children.’

Ibu Marian tells me (via Linda, who’s embarrassed to translate) that the visits of Linda and her team are a huge morale boost to the women in the IDP camp. ‘Linda is such a lovely person, so warm and friendly, and she talks to everyone. She’s a good listener. We love to see her here.

‘It’s wonderful to see our children happy and laughing. They keep asking us if it’s Tuesday or Thursday today, and how long they have to wait until it is one of those days.’

It is often the women who bear the biggest burden in situations like this. Linda explains that men here traditionally gather in coffee shops, where they talk about their problems. But women have no such traditional meeting places. ‘They sit at home, often alone, trying to work out their grief, worrying about what will happen to them and their children now that all their plans for the future have been washed away.’

The Pue Woe Seumangat centre is bringing groups of women together, so that they can talk about their experiences and work through their grief and fears with the support of others. Recently Linda and her team organised a noodle-making event, which aimed to do nothing more complicated than get women from the same community ‘playing and laughing’ together.

‘Just diverting their attention from their problems for a little while is good for them’, says Linda. ‘Making noodles reminds them that they haven’t lost everything. They are still women, they can still cook, and they can still laugh.’

The morning we went to the harbour was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It would have been even without Sabar there. But watching him look out to the cruel sea, from where that giant wave rushed in to kill his wife and children, that made the impact of what happened here tangible, so very very personal.

No more will this disaster be about millions of faceless, nameless people whom I’ll never meet or need to look in the eye. From here on it’s about this one person, Sabar, whose life was forever changed that one Sunday morning and who will bear the scars from that day for the rest of his life. It’s about this one person, Sabar, who is haunted by pain-filled memories and the unresolvable angst of never knowing what happened to the four people he loved most in all the world.

Linda told us much about the ongoing trauma experienced by the people of Banda Aceh, and we saw a lot with our own eyes, but nothing moved me so deeply as watching Sabar look out over the sea that has ripped his heart out. Though Linda rested her hand lightly on his back, he still seemed so completely alone in all the world.

Later that day at Rosni’s home, I watched Sabar pick up her newborn daughter and cuddle her. I wondered what he was thinking as he tickled Resa’s blue-bootied feet.

Linda snuggled in close to Sabar. They’re not embarrassed about showing public affection, these two. But then, what else would you expect from newly-weds? Linda and Sabar were married in March this year.

I asked them to pose for a photo. As Sabar drew his eyes away from Resa to look at my camera I glimpsed something beautiful I hadn’t seen before.

Sabar was smiling.

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