Journal from the Ground
by Mazalan Kamis
Heartbreak in Calang
I know Calang, the capital of Aceh Jaya, which is closest to the
epicenter of the December 26th 2004 earthquake and the subsequent
tsunami, has been classified as the worst hit area. After seeing so much
destruction, I believe I am mentally prepared to face the city.
Our first plan when we land in Calang is to find a temporary lady
teacher by the name of Ibu Dina (‘Ibu’ literally means ‘mother’, the
word is normally placed in front of a married lady’s name). Ibu Dina
made world headlines recently when TIME magazine voted her as one of the
100 most influential individuals in the world. I have seen her picture
in several newspapers in Aceh several days ago. Ibu Dina lived in Calang
with her husband and her three children before the tsunami. The couple
lost all their children to the disaster. However, rather than
surrendering to the unbearable sadness, she rises up to gather
surviving children of Calang and starts an emergency school for them.
Imagine my exitement when I discover Ibu Dina will be on the same flight
with me to Calang. Actually it is more like a double surprise: my first
helicopter ride and meeting Ibu Dina in person. During our brief
interaction with her, I learn that instead of being a celebrated figure,
now she is being outcast by her own community as they accuse her of
cashing in on their misery. For a person who has never read a TIME
magazine and never knew that her sincere effort would become a world
spotlight, the accusation pains her but it will not stop her from doing
what she has been doing. “I accept everything as another test from God,
the future of the children is my utmost concern,” says Ibu Dina with a
smile just as we are about to board the helicopter.
Ibu Dina (right) and her husband
(middle) talking to Saiful before our flight to Calang.
The helicopter is swarmed by people
who want to get out of Calang.
Upon arrival in Calang, the helicopter is swarmed by people who need to
get out of the city. After four months, this becomes the only lifeline
for the people of Calang to the outside world. What is my first
impression of Calang? NOTHING. Yes, the township has been totally wiped
out. Except for some coconut trees, not a structure remains standing in
Calang is now a tent city, where every one lives in and many work from a
tent. Nearly 75 percent of Calang’s population has been wiped out. In
fact, there are villages that have no survivors at all. In Calang, even
the Mayor lives in a tent. He shares the fate of many other survivors
here: he lost his wife and all of his children. Also, like many
survivors, he survived because he was not in the area when the disaster
I am told that many survivors stayed on the hills surviving only on
coconut fruit during the first few days after the tsunami because they
were too scared to come down. Only when help started arriving on the
fourth day did they begin to venture out. Now, the population of Calang
has steadily increased since many survivors from other places begin to
take refuge there as the city has become a nerve centre for the
distribution of relief supplies in Aceh Jaya.
An aerial view of a section of a
destroyed area close to Calang.
Calang is now just a tent city.
We are met by a volunteer from Jakarta whom Saiful came to know during
his first trip to Calang several months ago. While many of his friends
who descended to Calang during the first weeks after the tsunami had
returned to Jakarta, he continued to stay and had since grown fond of
the people and the place. He has witnessed how the place is slowly
regaining its strength to face the harsh reality and the uncertain
future. Now his worry turns to other remote villages which are still cut
off from Calang.
The volunteer giving me a tour of
Calang is using a beach scooter donated by an international
Several days ago, I read in a local paper that tons of donated food had
to be destroyed because the expiration date had passed. Many countries
pride themselves with being quick with the emergency responses of
shipping or dropping food in major disaster areas in other countries.
What many people in donor countries are not aware of is the fact that
their country is dumping unwanted food on the already devastated grief-
stricken victims of a disaster, especially those in poor countries. As
our volunteer guide pours such items on a table in his tent, I can only
gasp with disbelief. To think that a first world country has the heart
to dupe the world and gain mileage from other people’s suffering is
Expired food products are dumped
on the survivors of the tsunami in Calang.
Today is a holiday so we are not able to witness how classes are
conducted in schools in Calang. Our volunteer guide takes us to an
emergency elementary school set up in tents on a site where the
elementary school once stood. Volunteers, teachers and the school
children collect wood from the debris and build tables, chairs and other
facilities for the school. I hope the children will be able to move to a
new site soon, as I hear a temporary school for them is now under
While touring the site, we meet a group of women survivors who are busy
working on a newfound activity: sitting amidst some rubble, the women
are busy processing forest fruit found in the nearby forest and turning
it into coloring for use in cosmetic production. Since sporadic gun
fights between the Indonesian army and the Aceh separatists has not
ceased, only the very brave will venture deep into the forest to
retrieve the fruits. The women have to collectively save their daily
tsunami allowance (~USD 0.30 a day) to buy the fruits. Since this is
their first time indulging in this activity, they are not sure about its
economic return yet.
Elementary school in Calang
Saiful watches women tsunami
survivors processing forest fruits to produce coloring used in
Since it is a Friday (or Jumaat in Malay), Saiful and I join the
congregation of men at a Jumaat Prayer at Calang’s newly built community
center cum mosque. Jumaat Prayer is the weekly congregational prayers
held at midday on every Friday. It is obligatory for every Muslim man to
attend the prayer, which is opened by a sermon and followed by a ‘solat’(prayer).
After the prayer, we adjourn to a nearby tent occupied by volunteer
teachers and educational administrators for Calang’s Education
Department. We have the opportunity to talk to many people there. One
particular story, the story about the fate of a 19 year old boy named
Hidayat really cut deep into my heart.
Hidayat was a student in a university in Banda Aceh. He lost contact
with his family after the earthquake. He tried in vain to return to
Calang but heard that the route was not passable. However, on the fifth
day after the tsunami, upon learning that Calang was worse off than
Banda Aceh, he decided to return by a motorcycle but failed. The next
day, he tried to go on foot, but again the effort proofed fruitless. He
was lucky when he managed to hitch a ride on a boat on the seventh day.
But what he discovered was far beyond his expectation. He failed to
locate his parents and his sibling. Not just that, he could not even
find a single member of his extended family. He found nobody! He has now
come to accept that he is all alone in this world. Out of nearly one
thousand people from his village only 27 survived. He decided not to
return to his studies as he could not bear to face others who would be
asking about his family. He wants to get out of Aceh, possibly to
Malaysia to start a new beginning, but he has no means to do so. Hidayat
never looks at me throughout our conversation. At 3:00pm I leave Calang
with Hidayat’s heartbreaking story and face keep playing at the back of
Attending Jumaat Prayer at a
Hidayat never looks directly at me
throughout our conversation. He lost every member of his
immediate and extended family to the tsunami.
Back in Banda Aceh
After our arrival from Calang, we head straight to Punge Jurong as we
need to discuss some outstanding issues on how to effectively help the
village before I leave Aceh. I am happy to report that ARF’s
contributions have really made a difference in the village. I am
flattered when Pak Abu (the interim head village) requests for me to
come back as a special guest in early May to attend the village’s first
‘kenduri kesyukuran’ (a religious feast to thank God for their survival,
and to ask for protection in the future). The feast will be funded by
the village, from the money they receive for working in a ‘cash for
work’ program – a program designed by an international agency where
villagers get paid for cleaning their own village.
My last meeting with Pak Abu
(wearing a hat).
Donating some hardware to Saiful’s
teacher who wants to start a business to repair television and
other electronic items.
Since this is my last evening in Banda Aceh, Saiful decides to take me
to for a scenic drive to a popular beach spot where many Acehnese used
to come to swim and watch the sunset. I must admit that the spot must be
having been extremely breathtaking as it is facing an open sea with
white sandy beaches and rows of coconut trees. Even amidst the rubble
the place continues to retain its charm. And now, besides the sunset,
people also come to see a huge-upturned ship lying motionless nearby.
It is already dark when we drive back to Aceh. We decide to stop at two
places, one at a shelter center operated by a Malaysian relief agency,
and another at a site where various model homes for tsunami victims are
being built. I am glad to hear from the IDPs there that they are happy
with the setting of their shelter which is right in the middle of a
village and hence retains its entire ambiance. Their tents are
reasonably spacious and appropriately positioned in such a way that its
occupants can still enjoy some privacy. As for the model homes, they
are definitely much better than the barracks. I am wondering why it is
so difficult for the authorities to provide decent living arrangements
for the victims when so many alternatives are made available for them to
An upturned ship is now a new
Talking to IDPs while being shown
around their tent.
Posing in front of a model home.
~~ end of journal ~~