South Asia Tsunami's Effects Felt Here; Death Tolls
Rises Ten members of Mahdi's family
among the missing
KERRIE FRISINGER Journal Staff
Cornell graduate student Saiful Mahdi, left,
talks Saturday morning in his Ithaca apartment about the 10
family members he has not yet heard from back in his native
Indonesia, where his village was hard hit by the tsunami. At
right is Mahdi's friend and neighbor, fellow graduate student
Mazalan Kamis of Malaysia.
e-mail Mazalan Kamis at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
An account has been established under Kamis' and Saiful
Mahdi's names with HSBC bank.
ITHACA -- The news trickled in slowly, and the more Saiful Mahdi
learned, the worse it got.
At first, the Cornell doctoral student assumed his family --
living eight kilometers from the shore in the Aceh province of
Indonesia -- would remain out of the reach of last week's deadly
tsunami, spawned by an underground earthquake.
But as the death toll in news reports kept rising by the
thousands, Mahdi was having no luck reaching relatives by telephone.
Half a world away, in his Ithaca apartment, he frantically cobbled
together bits of information and eventually tracked down an old
friend, still in Indonesia, on his cell phone.
"He said our village is wiped away," said the 36-year-old Mahdi.
Ten members of Mahdi's family -- including his grandmother,
brother and sister --are still missing from Kampung Jawa and other
villages in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.
Over the past week, it's become increasingly clear to Mahdi and
the rest of the world that the Aceh province bore the brunt of the
tsunami that swept across South Asia on Dec. 26. The United Nations
has estimated that the final death toll, now at over 123,000, could
surpass 150,000 -- with as many as 100,000 in or near Aceh alone.
Remaining in Ithaca with his homeland in ruins fills Mahdi with a
sense of hopelessness, he said. So members of the Cornell Community
have arranged to send him back to Indonesia -- partially to wage one
last desperate search for his family, but more so to deliver
drinking water, food and other supplies to the thousands of
survivors who now face the dangers of starvation and disease.
"As I see it, Saiful cannot be doing the thinking," said
41-year-old Mazalan Kamis, a postdoctoral associate in Cornell's
department of education who started organizing donations and
mobilizing volunteers last week. "I think if I didn't do this, I'd
feel very bad inside."
Kamis comes from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just across a narrow
ocean strait from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. His relatives
were not harmed in the disaster, but he said he and his immediate
family have felt a close bond with Mahdi, his wife and three
children since they ended up living in the same apartment complex
more than a year ago.
"I feel so lucky to have a friend and a brother and a neighbor
like this," Mahdi said of Kamis. "I don't know what I would do."
News reports on Sunday said supplies were only just beginning to
reach survivors a week after the storm because of logistical
problems. Aceh has also been under martial law for almost two years
because of an ongoing separatist movement.
Mahdi and Kamis thought a smaller, grassroots relief effort would
be more efficient at delivering aid to the needy. In a day or so
last week, they raised the $6,000 minimum they estimated they would
need to send Mahdi for a few weeks to Indonesia, where he plans to
team up with about 10 childhood friends. He leaves on Wednesday.
The group is also seeking donations or discounts on water
purification systems, tents, two-way radios and other items Mahdi
will need in the disaster zone.
"Within a few degrees of separation, I think Saiful's e-mail had
reached a couple of thousand people," said Derek Cabrera, a doctoral
candidate in Kamis' department who donated a plane ticket to Mahdi.
"It's an amazing thing and it's happening all over the world right
Within just his own network of contacts, Cabrera said, more than
$17,000 in donations arrived in 48 hours.
Worldwide, more than $2 billion in aid has been pledged,
according to the U.N.
A student in Cornell's city and regional planning department,
Mahdi will also survey the damage and report back on what will be
needed to rebuild the area. Kamis, meanwhile, will continue to raise
money for immediate relief and eventual restoration efforts.
"This is a start-over because there is nothing left," Mahdi said.
Simeon Moss, deputy director of Cornell News Service, said the
university supports any efforts to help victims. Since the tsunami
hit while the university was closed for a week-long break, Moss
said, he was not yet aware of other Cornellians affected by the
tragedy or involved in relief.
"My guess is that, given the diversity of the community, we will
find out that more people have been affected," Moss said.
For Mahdi, the plan has always been to return with his doctoral
degree -- and his wife and children -- to Aceh, where he is a
lecturer at Syiah Kuala University. He has heard that many
professors died in the disaster, he said, so the province needs
intellectuals to return and provide new leadership.
Amid the grief of the past week, Mahdi has also received good
news. A second sister, her husband and her three children -- all of
whom had been feared dead --turned up alive on Friday. They survived
the storm surge by scrambling to the third floor of a neighbor's
house. His mother was also safe in Mecca and another brother
survived in Jakarta.
Although hope is dwindling for finding the 10 relatives who are
still missing, Mahdi said he may still try to wade through the
remains of his village.
"I believe that maybe I'm (still) here," he said, "because I need
to do something for my family, my community, the university."