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02/11/05 12:00AM
Total Collected:
US$ 69,122.10




Journal from the Ground
by Saiful Mahdi


Sunday, January 9, 2005 - uploaded 01/18/05 11:55PM

¬[01/08/05] [01/10/05]®


12:30am. I was still on and off sleeping when we were already on Seulawah region. Seulawah is a major mountain in Aceh dividing Pidie and Aceh Besar. Along the road rain comes and goes like before. We saw trucks and heavy equipment heading for Banda Aceh. Everybody is exhausted but we have to go ahead as there are no motels and inns available along the way from Sigli to Banda Aceh.

2:35am. We reach Banda Aceh! Entering the city from Lambaro on the outskirts, we can already see many command posts of different volunteer groups and some IDP camps in that misty night. Lights are scattered as scattered as the posts and camps. But it was getting more and more dense as we drive closer to the city. When we are closer to Lueng Bata, just at the edge of the city we start smelling the rotten smell of debris and corpse. It is very difficult to explain how I feel at that time. A strange feeling, wondering where the limit is that we can cross. We then just followed along the strip of lights. At Simpang Surabaya, I called People Crisis Center (PCC) command post. I was sorry to wake them up. They must be more exhausted than we are after helping tsunami victims the whole day. But we were there and had nowhere else to go.

One of the drivers offers his place to stay, but I insist on going to the command post. A good friend of mine whom I called were waiting for us when we arrived at the command post. Three other volunteers were also awake.

3:15am. After making sure that Joy has her place to lie down on the second floor of our command post, I continued exchanging news and stories with some friends, especially with the Tar, the student leader in charge of that post. I could see many supplies in its warehouse, ready to be delivered the next day. Volunteers, PCC members were sleeping all over the floor. The first, second and third floor of the building they rent for the relief work we want to do. Joy slept on the second floor with female volunteers. My friends and I went down to the first floor to chat with friends leaving our stuff on the third floor.

4:30am. We decided to go to sleep. With Tar, I went inside one of four tents already set-up in front of our command post. We sleep on sheets put on the wet ground. I thought I slept very soundly.

6:45am. I woke up dizzy! But not so much to stop me from meeting old friends and former students, leaders, activists. And...look Joy, the nurse from London is already awake.

7:30am. Joy is mopping the post’s floor and sanitizing it with Lysol. She said, “If we want to help others, we’ve got to be healthy and strong. So we need to keep our place clean and sanitized.”
 


PCC command post where I will spend most of my time in Banda Aceh. We rent two three storied buildings. One is for the office, bed-floor, and a partial warehouse, another one for a warehouse only. When the the office opens every morning, soon people come to report their missing family members, look at the bulletin board for found people, report IDP situation around their places, request aid deliveries and medicines.


 

7:35am. Last night my brother slept on plastic mats on the second floor with about eleven other volunteers, including Joy who slept on the second floor of the women’s section. My friends offer that I can stay on the third floor, but with a reminder that we still feel quakes quite often. No thank you. I choose to sleep in a tent available in front of the post. My other friends sharing ride from Medan chose to accept the offer of our driver. This time all of us coming back home to find ourselves have no place to sleep. What an irony! A bitter contrast to our experience before when we could have chosen to sleep in many places around Banda Aceh, either at relatives or friends.

I met two male volunteers from Pakistan who apparently stayed at the third floor of the command post. They came downstairs in their traditional night apparel to use the bathrooms in the first and second floor. The two guys are from Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation which has offices in Pakistan, UK, and in Corona, NY. Faisal Edhi, the vice chairman used to reside in NY and his brother lives is in Florida. The other one is Fauzi who speaks no English. They need a ride to catch a flight at the airport or a bus to go to Medan. They had tried to explain to our local volunteers but failed due to language barrier. And here they are in battered Banda Aceh among the young Acehnese volunteers who barely speak English. What brings these people together? People solidarity! Faisal felt released to know my being there to help out. I don’t intend to be a translator, but everybody needs to do everything they can in this suddenly internationalized city of Banda Aceh.

They asked me to find a flight to Medan, take them to airport or, if there is no flight, take them to the nearest bus terminal. Despite my recent arrival, I’d already learned that finding a flight from Banda Aceh’s tiny airport or a seat on the bus from anywhere-possible bus terminal is really a matter of luck. Nevertheless, I called some numbers I know to find out and made the two gentlemen happy and have some optimism in the morning to begin the day. It would have been wonderful to have more Joy-like volunteers who you can rely on being independent enough to go solo on many things in such a difficult situation in Aceh. I know for sure that the two guys also came sincerely to help. In fact, they told me that they need to fly to Medan to buy more supplies so they can send them soon to PCC and fly to Jakarta and back to Pakistan afterward to raise more aid for Aceh (Two days after that, they sent 5 tons of rice, 500 kg of green beans, and 2,5 tons sugar from Medan to PCC command post to be distributed to the quake and tsunami victims).

8:10am. Command Post became more crowded as more people arrived. People reported their missing family members or the presence of internally displaced persons (IDP) at their homes or villages. Some came to directly ask for aid supplies. PCC volunteers take note on all information. This data is then typed into electronic files using Microsoft Excel. IDPs information is then used when distributing aid supplies and mobile clinics provisions.

8:20am. Volunteers start rationing aid supplies according to reported household number and number of people in non-camp shelters. Based on age of IDPs reported, they also decide whether to include baby or children supplies. With a rented pick-up, PCC deliver 5-6 pick-up loads of aid supplies each day to places around Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar which are usually not served by camp/shelter-based services. I have been hearing and seeing that some families returned to the official shelters (from their relatives’ places) to be able to receive aid supplies. My sister and her family who survived the wave, for example, have been to a “formal” shelter. Fearing the poor condition for kids, however, they decided to move out of the shelter and take refuge with her husband’s distant relative. Consequently, they lost their chance to get aid supplies that are usually distributed only to formal shelters. In another case, my uncle (whom I met at my sister’s in-laws place in Glumpang Minyeuk -- see January 08 journal), told us that night that there were more than 30 persons of his wife’s relatives staying at the in laws’, but decided to go back to a shelter they had been in before in Mata Ie at the outskirt of Banda Aceh (about 125 kms from Glumpang Minyeuk). They said “We will not get aid supplies if we do not stay in a shelter.” So, they decided to go back to the shelter with all their kids. People staying at their relatives also fear disturbing and inconveniencing their hosts.

8:35am. I decided to take the two Pakistani guys to the airport with a pick up truck rented with CNY Aceh Relief Fund. The pick-up truck has been used to deliver aid supplies everyday, beginning three days before I arrived after I agreed to rent it when I called our contacts in Medan and Aceh. We find the two “volunteers” transportation to Medan or else they might become more of a liability to my folks at PCC who wanted to help but could not due to language barrier. After all, any guest is to be taken really good care of for at least three days in Acehnese culture. And we need to do it before the pick-up truck begins its daily delivery function. I needed at least ten minutes of re-adjustment to familiarize myself again with a manual shift and right-side steering wheel position of the car. The two guests from Pakistan seem to be worried about my driving skills. Well, I just landed two nights ago from the US and have barely had any sleep, Sirs! But then we were soon on the road to the airport.

9:05am. Faisal managed to get a commercial flight. Maybe there were no VIP (Very Important Persons) or VVIP (Very, Very Important Persons) coming to Banda Aceh that day, I thought. The airport was not as crowded as I’d been informed. I’d been hearing that the tiny airport of Sultan Iskandar Muda (a name of a famous Acehnese sultan), in Blang Bintang (literally “Farm of Stars”), was jammed by many national and international planes. Things become worse when high ranking officials visit Aceh for “need assessments” or “coordination”. When that happens, many other flights are delayed or cancelled. Even the very important aid workers are badly needed in Banda Aceh! Media suggests these people are “political” or “celebrity” volunteers. This makes many real, hard-working, grassroots, die-hard volunteers hate the words “need assessment” and “coordination” and other fancy jargon even more.
Faisal seems very happy and thankful. He wrote down my cell number and gave me his. He promised that all aid to be sent to PCC will be delivered as soon as possible and he will let me know of any updates on their effort to help Aceh and the Acehnese. After saying goodbye to each other, I drove back to Banda Aceh (about 15 kms from the airport). On the way, I saw Lambaro, a village just off the main Medan-Banda Aceh road which connects the city with the airport had become more crowded. Not only are there many victims and volunteer camps and shelters, but its market had become the substitute market for many surviving Banda Aceh dwellers and visitors. Lambaro has also been famous for being the site of mass-graves for corpses collected in Banda Aceh. It is just about 6 kms from Banda Aceh.

9:50am. When I arrived back at the PCC command post, I saw its office and warehouse were more crowded and busy. I also saw some friends, locals and internationals alike, around our post. The post has apparently been a starting point for everyday activities for many of them, including journalists, academicians, and international volunteers. This might be due to the very active role played by PCC folks in many areas of Acehnese humanitarian works.

10:10am. No breakfast has been available at the post. Volunteers grabbed anything available around them. They ate left over cookies and biscuits from deliveries. Somebody prepared coffee for everybody. Joy, our nurse who originally comes from Guyana, was already impatient to start her work. “When are we going to the shelters?,” she asked repeatedly. “I want to treat those wounded and sick people I saw on TV!” she kept telling me. Coincidently, there were sick people, including kids, in Lembah Hijau of Lam Cot as reported by our delivery volunteers. These are 34 IDPs taking shelter in one house, supposedly a relative’s. Hmmm, we had medicine that I brought from Ithaca, an experienced nurse from London, and a rented minibus from Medan. “Joy, why don’t you prepare the medicine? You’ll go with two Acehnese volunteers to a house about 3 kms from here where some people are sick,” I told Joy my sudden but common sense plan. Joy appeared to be very happy and excited. Soon, she, an Indonesian doctor, a male nurse and interpreter who had offered their help since the morning they saw Joy, were busy choosing medicine supplies. I assigned two Acehnese volunteers at our post to accompany them. And that how our first mobile clinic started!

I already ate one energy bar I brought from Ithaca. Thank you Mas Yoyok for choosing the bars so I could manage my first morning. I gave one bar to my brother and enjoyed it with bottled water. The bar is really handy, but I don’t think it will stand up to replacing three regular meals as you said, Mas! Ha…ha..ha… (I felt really hungry by late afternoon of that first yet very hectic day in Banda Aceh.)
 

Joy (right with black bandana), a female doctor and a translator nurse selected medicines at PCC post in Simpang Surabaya, Banda Aceh, that they wanted to take on their first mobile clinic visit. All the supplies in the picture are donated by Ithacans. Joy seemed to be in charge despite the presence of a medical doctor. Self-initiative and self-motivated volunteers are mostly needed in chaotic situations. (9/1).




Around 11am. Joy with four other volunteers departed to visit houses where sick IDPs were. S.Gade, Firdaus (Dian’s brother), si Om (S.Gade’s uncle), and my brother were ready outside the post to start our “family” fact-finding journey. But we need to wait for the minibus which had left for a mobile clinic trip. I asked our local volunteers to show and drop Joy’s team at one house to begin the medical treatment and then go around the neighborhood as there were some houses full of IDPs around that area. That way, we can utilize our rented minibus as much as possible. I wanted the driver to drop Joy and her mobile clinic team, come back to pick up my team, drop us at our point of interests, and then return back to pick up Joy’s team. When the car returned from dropping Joy’s team, we load the car with supplies and equipment, some from Ithacans, some others from Firdaus who bought equipment in Jakarta upon my request (boots, masks, gloves, and rain-coats). We drove through battered Banda Aceh. Some main roads had been cleared by heavy equipments. But corpses were still scattered in many places around the destroyed city, even at the roadsides that had been cleared up. Some were in body bags, some covered by torn plastics sheets, some were just lying there without any cover.

11:20am. The driver dropped my brother and me close to the neighborhood where my mother’s house is. My other teammates went on to their family members’ places.
There was no way to approach the house by car, so we had to walk slowly across black water and mud, heavy rumble of every kind. There were no obvious pathways. We just followed our common sense direction or, at some parts, footsteps from previous “explorers”.
 


A well-known middle school, SMP 1 Banda Aceh, which had more than a thousand students, quality teachers and great buildings, including a stylish building built by the Dutch during colonial times, was turned into rubble by the tsunami, leaving only “a classroom” (right), part of the Dutch building. I did my middle school at this school. The school is only two blocks from our house in Punge Jurong. In the distance, in the middle of this photograph, is the mosque of my kampong (village). Picture taken Sunday, 9/1.


 


This is the only pathway “passable” to my mother’s house in Punge Jurong, Jalan Perintis. My brother and I had to take this way to reach the house on Sunday, 9/1.


 

We might have chosen a wrong time to visit the hot, humid and now salted place destroyed by tsunami waves. Mid-day temperature might have been 34-36 centigrade (80’s F). But we were there, and we wanted to see our home no matter how it looked. We saw some people, including some familiar faces trying to save anything possible from their destroyed houses. Many of them were exploring places with minimal or no protection at all. Some people were already starting to collect usable waste like aluminum scraps despite the dead bodies that were still found here and there.

In the 300 feet walking through the rubble to our destroyed house, we saw six corpses in body bags. The air smelled terrible; a mix of rotten mud, garbage, and decaying corpses. I felt sorry, in fact guilty somehow, for not being able to do anything about the many corpses we passed. Not only were the places difficult to pass, but the numbers of corpses were still too large to be taken care of by unprofessional people like us. If many corpses could be seen easily on the passable roadsides, we could hardly imagine how many corpses might be under the flattened buildings.

I managed to climb up to the second floor of our house extension by going slowly on the top of the first floor rubble. The second floor was a complete mess and I could see a mark left by water as high as the door on the second floor. I could only get into one room on the second floor; another room where my sister and her family usually sleep was locked. My sister’s cupboard, tables, and chairs were falling down, some were broken apart.
 


Our destroyed house on Perintis Street No. 17, Punge Jurong V, Banda Aceh. The extension second floor survived the quake and tsunami but the water, according to my surviving sister, reached as high as the top of the door on the second floor. The extension was built by my brothers, sisters and me chipping in funding together in one way to show our gratitude and appreciation to our parents. The surviving part of the house might have withstood the waves because of the presence of another house right behind our house (the white building just behind the surviving second floor extension). Picture was taken 9/1, 12:45pm.


 

From the second floor, I went down through half broken wooden stairs to the ground floor. The outside walls of the ground floor are gone. But inside walls connecting the extension ground floor to the dining room and the bathroom were still there. I found two dead bodies on the falling apart ground floor. One was female, just under the wooden stairs, one was male, right on the doorway to the bathroom. The big bathroom was full of debris. I called my brother telling of the two corpse there. “Could it be our missing sister and brother, or my brother in law? And where is my niece, Aiza’s, body?” I wondered. My brother stood next to the debris outside and said “But Murni said they were already outside the house when the wave came. Those corpses might be other people swept by the wave to our house.” Murni is our surviving sister. “Are you sure she said that?” I wanted a confirmation. “That’s what she said,” replied my brother. “Did Murni really see them?” I asked again. “Well…I don’t know. She said she did not see them anymore when they were running for their lives. But she said that they were already out of our house.”
The answer did not satisfy me. “We need to reconfirm what Murni said, I think,” I said and I went out from the other side of the debris.

12:55pm. It’s too hot to stay longer. We finished all our bottled water. Well, as a matter of fact, we were not really ready to face the “ground zero”. We would need hammers, crow bars and other tools, to break through tons of debris around us. And of course, we need more people.

1:45pm. We decided to end our first visit to our destroyed home, but plan to come back tomorrow with more tools. While we were going back to the cleared main road, we called our friends and asked them to tell the driver to come and pick us up. We walked slowly and carefully. When we reached the main road, the car was not there yet; so we had to wait. A call rang on my brother’s cell phone. I know from the conversation that my sister Murni and her family and in-laws were already back in Banda Aceh from Glumpang Minyeuk. “Why can’t they just stay in Sigli (our home district, about two hours by road from Banda Aceh)?” I told her that her husband could come back to Banda Aceh, but I wanted her and her three kids to stay away from Banda Aceh. “The kids did not let Kamaruddin (surviving sister’s husband) go without them,” explained my brother.

And then we waited for the car again. While waiting, we talked to some people we know from surrounding areas of our neighborhood. All sad and tragic stories. Too many to tell, to little we can do. The destruction and the loss is just unimaginable.
 


A document folder from the University of Vermont (where I received my Master’s degree) was found among the debris of my destroyed home. 9/1


 


A view from the destroyed second floor extension of my house. My brother, Rusdi, was helping and observing from the ground. We suspected that our mother’s old cupboard might be under the fallen roof.


 

2:05pm. The car was still not there yet. I am feeling my uncovered arms was being burnt by the heat of the sun combined with the humid air full of evaporated salted water and mud. The high humidity like that usually precedes the coming of rain. But the sky was still so clear and the sun was so bright. We observed some people trying to salvage scrapped motorbikes and destroyed cars. Some others were collecting aluminum scraps to be sold by its weight. I heard people can get about 8000 rupiahs (about 90 cents) for a kilo of aluminum scraps in Banda Aceh. But the price for the same thing is double in Medan where an aluminum-bauxite plant is. I told my brother my plan to take Murni to try to recognize the two corpses in our destroyed house.
 


On the way back from visiting the site of my destroyed house, we saw looters in action around the shopping areas of Banda Aceh. People were taking bikes from a bike shop. Water was still everywhere, and getting higher when rains come. Most looters were already poor people before the disasters, but we also saw some people looting who might have lost everything with the quake and tsunamis.9/1


 

2:40pm. We were back to the post. PCC volunteers were still busy loading and unloading supplies. They unloaded supplies into the warehouse from trucks coming from Medan or other places. Some load selected supplies to smaller pick up trucks to go around Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar district to distribute the supplies to houses where IDPs are. It started raining. Still, the volunteers continue the loading process. Some with raincoats, some not. I looked and asked around to find out where Joy was. I found Taufik who left with Joy, the doctor and the male nurse who traveled together in the mobile clinic team. He told me that they had visited two houses and they examined 11 sick IDPs including some kids at Lembah Hijau. And that Joy had gone with the doctor and the male paramedics (not nurse as mentioned before). Taufik said that the doctor and the paramedics are from a Christian mission operating on the other side on Banda Aceh.

3:10pm. My “boy scout team” decided to go find lunch. The consensus was to find food as far away from “ground zero” as possible. As Firdaus, my brother-in-law, and I have not seen his mother (or my mother-in-law) yet, we decided to go along the way to Montasik to find lunch. Six of us got back into the car: My brother, Dian’s bother, S.Gade and his uncle, the driver and me. We found lunch just around the junction at Aneuk Galong. The rain came and went then.

4:05pm. We dropped by Dian’s grandmother place to see Dian’s mother. She was with her sick mother and a number of nieces, nephews, and cousins. It is just so happened that six of Dian’s aunts and uncles are all in pilgrimage to Mecca. That makes Dian’s mother the person in charge of her whole extended family. She wept when she saw Firdaus and me. The living room was crowded with kids and adults, almost twenty of them. But I could not stay too long because my brother and I wanted to take our sister to try to see the corpse. She might recognize them from their clothes.

Around 5:15pm. We arrived at the drop off point again after picking up my sister, Murni, from her brother-in-law’s place in Ulee Kareng. Three of us, my brother, my sister and I, with boots, gloves, masks, and rain coats went through the rubble and reached our destroyed house slowly. I took my sister to the two corpses. This time we brought with us torch lamps. The faces of the corpses were already unrecognizable because of decay. Even the clothes on the dead bodies were already rotten. But my sister was sure that they are not our family members. The clothes did not match the ones she believed they had used on the tragic day when the quake and tsunami hit on December 26. Again she emphasize that they were already out of the house and it is very unlikely their bodies could have brought back by the wave to our ruined house. That time, my silly, desperate mind wished there would be CSI team---the famous forensic investigation series on CBS who could come to do forensic analysis on the bodies around my destroyed neighborhood. Silly me!

Because we were already there, we climbed up to the second floor to take some of my niece’s and nephew’s unspoiled clothes. We found some of their clothes untouched by water. This made me wonder. When I asked, my sister said that the upper part of the wooden cupboard might have floated on top of the water. That is why we can save some clothes from the top drawer of her cupboard.

Around 7:30pm. When we got back to the post, the volunteers were not as busy. The delivery pick-up trucks were already parked. But the unloading process from a big truck which just arrived from Medan was still on going. I picked up my back pack with some clothes from the PCC post. So did my brother, because we decided to sleep at my sister’s brother-in-law’s place that night.

Around 8pm. The in-laws welcome us with all the hospitality they could offer. But everything is limited in Banda Aceh now. Families stick together and many do not want to sleep inside their rooms because of the trauma of the quake which people could still feel sometimes. I had been hearing that some people even prefer to sleep outside under tents to feel safe from quake reoccurrence, tremors. They offered that my brother and I could sleep in one of their three bedrooms, but we rejected knowing that there were five families in that one house: one host family, Kamaruddin’s older brother, and four other families of his sisters and his himself. So there we were: brothers, sisters, in-laws, sleeping in living and dining room floors. (Of course this was after I’d had my first “best bath” after the last one in Medan on the morning of January 8.)

¬[01/08/05] [01/10/05]®