By Ayusnita Pane, ChildFund Indonesia
Ayusnita, who works for ChildFund Indonesia as a human resources officer, shared her experiences from the 2004 tsunami, when she was a college student in Banda Aceh, one of the hardest-hit regions. You can read more about the tsunami on our blog and ChildFund’s website.
I was in my last semester at the University of Syiah Kuala in Banda Aceh, where I lived in a student dorm on the third floor. That Sunday morning, Dec. 26, 2004, I was watching television when the earthquake happened. Earthquakes were quite common in Aceh, but that one was shaking tremendously. Everyone rushed out of the building. Then we saw many birds flying above us. I didn’t know what kind of birds they were; it was like a death bird, so I thought, this is it, the end of the world.
To my confusion, I saw people were running and screaming “Water, water!” I didn’t really know what was happening, but I followed everyone. I looked back and saw everything was dark; it was like black water. I ran faster than I normally did, even though I was wearing a sarong. I tried to stop people in cars too, but no one stopped. Everyone thought to save themselves first.
I kept running and following people to the campus mosque. I thought if I die, I’ll die in a mosque. Everyone was panicked and screaming. Cars and motorbikes were lurching and honking. I made it to the mosque and went up to the second floor. But the tremors hadn’t stopped, so we kept coming downstairs and back up again every time people shouted “Water, water!” Soon, people were screaming, “Dead body, dead body!” At the time, I still didn’t understand how huge a disaster this was. Suddenly, many people were carrying dead bodies covered in mud, their clothes torn apart. It happened so fast.
Ten years later, I actually still don’t want to see anything relating to the tragedy. I just can’t watch it. I feel a little upset. Why do we have to keep remembering it? I didn’t lose my family, but only a close friend. I cannot imagine if I lost my own family. I don’t know how to tell my feelings. It’s unspeakable. Sometimes I wonder why I was so traumatized. I didn’t drown. I didn’t lose my family, but I just cannot help thinking about people who were affected.
After the flood, we were taken by car to the airport. I had a few bucks and my mobile phone with me, but there was nothing to buy and no cellular networks were on. No stores were open, because they were afraid of looting. One friend of mine sold her jewelry to get a plane ticket, but there were no flights. We just waited at the evacuation camp at the airport. At night, we slept on the road, because we were afraid of the airport would collapse from the earthquake. Soldiers came, providing us with water, rice and noodles.
Some of our male friends came back to the dorm to get some clothes, but everything was gone. In that very short time, during such a tragedy, people had looted our belongings. Some said people came from Medan in a truck to loot everything with many dead bodies still lying downstairs.
I stayed in the airport until Monday night, when my friend was picked up by her brother. I went out with them and back to my parents in Medan.
I thought, this is it, the end of the world.
One day, I got hysterical seeing the news on television. Another day, I just cried and screamed. I had nightmares too and didn’t go out for about three months. My family got me a preacher and prayed for me to release all the bad influences. None of us were aware that this was happening because of the trauma.
Three months after the tsunami, I went back to Aceh to finish my studies. I went to see the dorm; the campus areas were badly damaged. I didn’t see dead bodies anymore, but we still could smell something. It was really devastating for everyone.
After the tsunami, the cost of living had gone up crazily, including for renting a room or a house. So, I stayed in the evacuation shelter for about six months, moved from one to another when it became more packed with people. I took a job with a French nongovernmental organization while finishing my studies and finally found a rental house for a decent price and stayed there with a friend to share the costs.
All of my friends from the dorm were safe. But I lost five friends who didn’t live at the dorm; one of them was really close. She was in her house with her family that day and was swept away by the water. I know some people reunited years after the tsunami. Sometimes I hoped I could see her again. Her younger brother told me she didn’t survive. He is the only one from his family who survived because he wasn’t at home then. I have lost my hope. Two or three times, I chased someone who I thought looked like her. I called out her name, Amel, but when they turned around, I realized they weren’t her.
I stayed in Banda Aceh until 2010 but just had the courage to look for my friend’s house this February, in 2014. It was really heartbreaking and difficult for me. The area was totally destroyed, but I remembered there was a cellular tower near her house. She used to climb on it to play around. That tower was the only thing left there.
Something stays with me until today. At the campus mosque, I saw a little boy in front of me, about 7 or 8 years old, who was bleeding from a bad cut. He was crying, but I didn’t ask him anything. I was so confused about what was happening and overwhelmed by seeing so many dead people. I am thinking now maybe I was too selfish at that time for only thinking about myself. Even now, I still have his face in my mind.
I didn’t really know what a tsunami was until it happened in Aceh. Now, when we have an earthquake, I always wonder if there will be a tsunami or not, and where to go. In Banda Aceh, we see many evacuation route signs now, and the infrastructures have also been developed better.
Ayusnita has lived in Jakarta with her family since 2010 and joined ChildFund as a human resources officer in October 2014.