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Wrestling with trauma

Slow recovery: Nyak Minah stands in front of a store she added to the front of her home in Kubang Gajah, on November 4. Ten years after a giant tsunami swept across south Asia, survivors across the region still wrestle with the trauma that lingers long after the water receded from thousands of seaside towns and villages.

Slow recovery: Nyak Minah stands in front of a store she added to the front of her home in Kubang Gajah, on November 4. Ten years after a giant tsunami swept across south Asia, survivors across the region still wrestle with the trauma that lingers long after the water receded from thousands of seaside towns and villages.

TEN years after a giant tsunami swept across south Asia, survivors across the region still wrestle with the trauma that lingers long after the water receded from thousands of seaside towns and villages.

“When the waters rose around my house during recent flooding, it brought back memories of the tsunami, and I felt some of that fear all over again,” Nyak Minah, a tsunami survivor in the seaside village of Kubang Gajah, said.

Ms Minah’s mother died during the December 26, 2004, tsunami, which left an estimated 280,000 people dead or missing in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and several other countries.

Ms Minah said she escaped because she was away from home at the market when the waves struck.

In the months that followed, the Indonesian Government tried to force Ms Minah and her neighbours to relocate their village further inland, but they successfully fought the idea.

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid agency of the United States bishops’ conference, built her a new home.

She has added on a kitchen and a small store, from which she sells food and household supplies.

In late October, heavy rains led to severe flooding in the community, the worst that Ms Minah, a widow about 50 years old, can remember.

Deforestation to clear the way for expansion of nearby palm oil plantations had exacerbated annual flooding, she said.

A new early-warning system in the area means a siren will sound if a tsunami is suspected.

Residents are supposed to flee to a nearby palm oil processing plant, which is on elevated ground.

Ms Minah said tests of the siren brought back uncomfortable feelings.

“When I hear the siren, or I see the floodwaters, I remember that day. It all comes back. I remember the destruction, the fear, and the sadness of looking in vain for our loved ones afterward,” she said.

A Catholic priest in Banda Aceh, the city on the northern tip of Indonesia’s giant Sumatra Island and ground zero for the destruction, said Ms Minah’s experience was common.

“Many of the survivors are still victims, suffering from psychological distress,” pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church Fr Hermanus Sahar said. “That stress manifests itself in a variety of ways.

“Some have lingering physical problems for which there’s no other explanation. And some remain afraid of everything.

“When there’s an alarm or a loud noise, some people start screaming, not from pain, but simply because they are afraid.”

The tsunami, provoked by the third-strongest earthquake ever recorded, also brought positive changes to the Aceh region.

Long afflicted by a separatist insurgency, Aceh’s warring parties stopped fighting and signed a 2005 agreement on autonomy for the region.

The capital city of Banda Aceh, much of which was reduced to rubble a decade ago, is today a thriving modern city with fancy stores and traffic jams.

Large infrastructure projects, like the Mother and Child Hospital built by Catholic Relief Services, are symbols of the estimated $14 billion in international aid that poured into the region after the disaster.

Fr Sahar said the aid spurred economic progress throughout Aceh.

“There was a lot of international aid that helped the people to recover, and that provided infrastructure we didn’t have before,” he said. “There are now roads, for example, providing good access to many places that were not connected to the economy before.

“Although there are many tragic stories, the tsunami brought blessings to some of the survivors.”

Some elements of the aid response didn’t go well, however. In several areas, houses built for survivors today stand empty, the result of pressure to build things quickly before local communities could make comprehensive decisions about their future.

In some other communities, complaints abound of families that tricked aid agencies into building them more than one house.

CNS

Disaster zone: (Below left) People make their way through destruction wrought by the 2004 tsunamis in Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Photos: CNS

Disaster zone: (Below left) People make their way through destruction wrought by the 2004 tsunamis in Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Photos: CNS

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