At around nine in the morning, we picked up Syahrul, our
translator, at Phi Beta and headed for the KONTRAS office. KONTRAS is an
organization that assists conflict survivors. Prior to the tsunami,
there was a state of conflict in Aceh between the central government and
GAM, the Acehnese group fighting for more autonomy and rights for the
people and province. Many people died, were disappeared, and were
tortured. KONTRAS had arranged for us to interview a group of conflict
survivors. The group consisted of one young 22 year old man who’d been
detained for eight months when he was fifteen, and two women with
children whose husbands had been “disappeared.” The interviews gave us
much to consider and also reiterated how much there is about Acehnese
society that we’d like to learn.
We returned to Aceh Institute to confirm our schedules for the week and
to make our daily attempt at sending journal entries.
We spent the afternoon in Punge Jurong, ARF’s adopted village speaking
to tsunami survivors. We met in the community center close to the mosque
in the center of the village. Initially there were seven people who
gathered there to share their stories, but a few more joined in, making
a total of eleven, three men and eight women. We will return at a later
date to complete the interviews, but we were able to hear about five or
six people describe their tsunami experiences. Each of the eleven people
had lost family members, most of them had lost most of their children,
along with additional relatives. The first man we interviewed, Ismail
Husen, lost three of his four children and his wife. The son who
survived fled to the building adjacent to the mosque along with many,
many other people who all gathered there because it had a upper level.
But the water hit a house nearby, lifted it off its foundation, and sent
it careening into the building. Just before the house hit the building,
Ismail Husen’s 14 year old son jumped into the water and underneath the
floating house. He came up for air after the building had passed over
him and is still alive. Most of the others on the building that day did
Another person, Sofyan, 62, lost three children, a son-in-law, and a
grandchild. He also lost his business (he owned and managed four shops)
which he hasn’t been able to restart. He felt the earthquake and had the
feeling that it was abnormal. He got on his motor scooter to go to the
market where his son was to ask him to come home with him because in the
event that anything bad should happen, he wanted his family to be
together. The water hit while he was in the market. He and his son
survived, but his family was not so lucky. He lost seven family members.
Sofyen, 62, sped to the market on his motorbike after the
earthquake, but before the tsunami.
Hasni, 44, had difficulty trusting us with her story,
saying that she couldn’t really speak because her feelings were too
precious to share. But then she told us how she lost three of her four
children. The surviving son, 19, used to be involved with his studies,
but after the tsunami he can’t concentrate and doesn’t want to go to
Hasni, 44, was initially reluctant to tell her story.
Tengku Ibrahimdin, 55, lost his wife, four children, and
a grandchild. Three of his deceased children were in university, one in
junior high school. He comes from North Aceh, but had sent his wife and
four children to Banda Aceh to escape the political conflict. He thought
it would be safer for them. Instead, the tsunami claimed their lives.
Towards the end of our discussion, the villagers were bemoaning the
government’s inadequate system of data collection, wishing more reliable
lists of missing children had been formed. They’d heard about children
from Banda Aceh who’d suddenly appeared in Java without explanation.
They think some of the missing children might still be alive, too
traumatized to remember their families or their villages. The fear is
that others might have taken advantage of this and claimed children as
their own. There are rumors of foreign child trafficking. They wish
there was a way to discover the truth. If they discovered that one of
their children had been “adopted” by another family, they wouldn’t
insist that the child be returned to them; they’d only want to know that
the child was alive. Although no one we interviewed admitted believing
their child was alive, it was clear that if the vaguest possibility
existed, they believed all claims should be investigated.
Women in Punge Jurong sharing their tsunami experiences.
We ran into prayer time in the evening. Many of the
women invited us to come back and we made plans with the translator and
Muhyiddin to do so.
On the way back to the Institute we discussed the rumors surrounding the
missing children with Syarhul, our translator. He is also a tsunami
survivor, having lost a 16 year old brother and his father. He says his
mother continues to hope that his brother is still alive, but he doesn’t
believe it. He insists that if we’d seen the devastation right after the
tsunami, we’d know that the chances of children suddenly appearing alive
are too slim. He says that while some people were able to identify the
dead bodies, there were overwhelming numbers of dead that almost
immediately deteriorated so much as to make them impossible to identify.
One of the most striking things about the community in Punge Jurong is
the close bond between its members, intense loyalties, and a highly
developed sense of community. When asked about this earlier, the
district head, Faisal, suggested that the sense of responsibility each
member has toward each other and the whole is a reaction/result of the
tsunami. But the Punge Jurong community seems special and solid,
committed to all members, and I suspect it had already defined itself as
such before the tsunami.
We dropped off Syarhul and Muhyiddin at the Aceh Institute and made our
way back to the hotel where we busied ourselves with journals, compiling
research notes, and sending photographs to Lisa’s newspaper as her
weekly deadline for stories is fast approaching.