December 26, 2014
Washed Away, Rescued, Kidnapped and Struggling: A Tsunami Survivor's Life

She was nine when the tsunami washed her away, separating her from her family, an event that forever changed the course of her life.

by Intan Afriaty
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26 December 2004. Morning came and brought peace with it. The chirping birds woke people up of the new day. The grasses were moist with dews.

I thought of nothing after waking up that morning, except for turning on the TV and asking my mother for breakfast. The clock struck 7 a.m. My eyes were glued to the screen. I was 9 years old at that time.

Suddenly, a powerful tremor shook the ground of my house, and it got more and more powerful every second, as if the world was convulsing. I saw my mother running towards me and turning off the TV. Her feet trembled, so she slowly sat down. Her eyes were shut closed and her mouth endlessly whispering the names of Allah.

Around us, the furniture started to topple over, thumping and crashing down to the floor. My brother ran to the big aquarium, trying to hold it steady so it would not fall. The water spilled all over anyway, as another huge tremor emerged from below the ground.

The quake subsided after a while, but my entire family has stepped outside. My mother’s beloved plants and flowers were in ruin on the ground.




One by one, our neighbors came and gathered at a jamboe next to our house. Jamboe is a public gazebo where people go to relax and unwind. It had been there since my father was still alive.

And soon we heard the sounds of explosion, three times in a row. Horrifying sounds. We looked at each other in confusion, but no one dared to utter a word. Another neighbor suddenly came in running and screamed hysterically. 

From the north, I saw dozens of people charging towards us. Some of them pointing at a direction, saying “the sea water’s rising” with horror on their faces. A second later, I was shocked to a see pitch-black gigantic wave advancing toward us.

I ran as fast as I could to dodge the scary giant wave. I asked myself endlessly, “Is the world coming to an end? Is it doomsday?”

I ran and ran until I realized that I was no longer with my family. I looked to my left and right. My breathing was so heavy.

Everything around me was in slow motion. Suddenly there was a hand grabbing mine and when I turned my head, I saw my sister holding my hand tight.

We ran again without stopping until my sandals were broken and I ran with bare feet. Arriving at Lamseunoeng prayer house, I turned around and saw the water only several steps away behind me. I realized that my mother, my brother and Cekta, my aunt, had been left behind.  They must have been hit by the wave.

I thought, I was an orphan now. My sister and I submitted ourselves to the fate. We only stood still seeing the wave nearly hit us. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought this was how we were fated to die.

The second wave came crashing on us. I was shocked to see what the black water brought. Aside from sweeping off people, the wave had washed away every house in its way. Strayed zinc roofs traveling at murderous speed chopping helpless people’s heads off.

My sister and I held hands so tight as we didn’t want to lose one another. But the powerful wave ripped us apart. I got caught in piles of bodies. There were hundreds of bodies around me, and I lost my sister.

I couldn’t swim so the waves quickly overwhelmed me as I tried to stay afloat. I I screamed for help whenever I surfaced but nobody paid atttention. At the moment I grabbed something that was floating in front of me, clinging to it tightly so that I wouldn’t drown. As it turned out, it was a human head. The eyes were bulging and the left eyeball had popped out.

The wave returned for the third time and I lost the head. I drifted so far until I got stuck in another piles of bodies. A big chunk of wood clamped my feet while my hands grabbed another log so that I wouldn’t sink.

I could only scream for help, but, still, nobody listened. I looked around and only saw water mixed with debris and frightening corpses. I didn’t feel scared anymore, just the thought of saving myself.

I was starving but around me was water as far as I could see. Later on there was a refrigerator floating nearby. I tried to reach it, swinging my hands to get to the fridge. I finally touched it. When I opened it, there were a lot of food inside. I took some and ate them.

When I felt full, I decided to stop eating. I looked to my left and right, but no one was alive.

Being Rescued

It was then that I heard a voice, “Adek (Little sister).”

I paused for a second, confused. I was sure there was nobody here. Whose voice was that and whom was he calling?

Apparently, there was a man trying to help me. His face told me he was about my brother’s age. He brought me to higher, dryer ground.

We walked over bodies sprawling all over the place, some with no clothes on. They were in horrible condition. Some got stuck on fences; others decapitated. The most tragic ones were the body of a mother with a disfigured baby.

We finally found an open field, where so many people took refuge. We took a rest for a while. A mother then approached us and asked us to come to her house. She told me to take a bath and gave me clean clothes to wear, before offering us food.

After we ate, we thanked her and left to continue our journey. In the middle of the trip, we were stopped by somebody to take a rest at a security post. People there gave me food to fill our empty stomachs. I was grateful there were still good people left in this world.

We arrived at Cot Keueueng, near Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport, when a man asked us to live with him and took us to his house. He has a wife and three kids, two girls and a boy. They treated me like their own family.

I was taken good care of, and every afternoon the father took me for a stroll. His name is Kasim. I stayed at his house for 10 days, and during that time I didn’t have any appetite because the food wasn’t prepared by my mother. They were baffled with my behavior. Pak Kasim often took me for a stroll, while looking for my family.

But then he took me to his home village, where I was kept like a hostage. I was only fed instant noodle every single day. The villagers asked questions about me, but the man only said, “She’s a tsunami survivor and I brought her here. She’s an orphan, so I look after her here.”

The news about me spread to Tapak Tuan area. Some relatives who knew about me came and asked me questions. “Who are your mother and father? What are the names of your grandmother and grandfather? Where did you live? Where is your village, dear?”

I answered all of their questions. They realized that I was a relative of their niece’s husband.

They begged Pak Kasim to return me to them, but the man said no. They didn’t give up. Every week they sent me Rp 200,000 but I never received it.

Reunited

I later found out that my mother, sister, and Aunt Cekta survived the disaster, but my brother was never found. My family checked every corpse they found or was taken to the mosque, to check whether it was mine or my brother’s. Until one day, my mother apparently let it go and arranged a vigil for me.

On the 30th day, a neighbor told her that he saw me being brought by an unknown man to Aceh Selatan. My mother did not respond to the news. My neighbor insisted and ensured Mother that it was really me, but she chose not to believe it. She grew quiet and went to her room.

Around that time, my family found out that UNICEF and several other institutions offered a service to find children or family members who were missing. My big family and my neighbor then reported the information about my whereabouts and asked UNICEF to look for me.

UNICEF and its partners and staff of the Ministry of Social Affairs finally traced me, and managed to get the number of a relative of the man who rescued me.

One day, I got a phone call from somebody who came from the same village as mine. When I picked up the phone, I heard a familiar voice, “Hello, Assalamu’alaikum.”

The voice reduced me to tears. It was my mother’s. But I couldn’t say a word because I was afraid I would cry hard. The man yanked the phone off my hand. He spoke lengthy on the phone but I didn’t know what he was talking about, as I was filled with all kinds of emotions.

The next day I saw him packing in a rush. When I asked him, he told me that he was going to Sigli to meet my family. I begged him to take me but he wouldn’t.

In Sigli, the man talked with my family and was getting ready to leave again, but my family wouldn’t let him get away. Some of my family, including my mother and several other people from UNICEF came along with the man.

Once they arrived in Aceh Selatan, my mother was shocked and angry because I wasn’t at home. The UNICEF guy ordered the man to bring me back to them in harsh tone, and he finally caved in. He picked me up at a neighbor’s shop, where I was being placed.

When I finally met my mother again, I held her really tight. I cried histerically like I had lost my mind. I asked her where my brother and my sister were.  

She was quiet, at loss for words. And then she said, “They were at home, just relaxed.” I was relieved, although a bit disappointed because Abang (brother) didn’t pick me up.

The first person I saw back at the village was my sister. I hugged her for the longest time, refusing to be separated again. I asked her about our brother, but nobody answered. When I finally found out about the truth, I was so sad. I felt like noone could love me the way my brother had loved me. My only brother has left for good without me having seen his face, his body. There wasn’t even a grave to visit.

A week after my arrival, I had to go back to Aceh Besar to meet the Minister of Social Affairs who visited Aceh at that time. I was drilled about the incident with the man who kidnapped me.

It was really exhausting. But every one of my replies was given a sympathetic look. Not only that, I was also given an envelop filled with money. It took me by surprise when I counted the money and found a huge amount of Rp 2.5 million (US$250).

After the meeting with the Minister, my sister and I returned to my mother’s kampong. I studied at SD 1 Lampoh Saka where my grandmother taught. During my stay at the village, I felt sad and bitter because my mother was not there beside me. She had to live at the refugee camp at the garden of Ulee Kareng Mosque, Banda Aceh.

A year later, when my sister graduated from SMA 1 Sigli senior high school, she went to Banda Aceh to live with our mother while I stayed with my grandmother in the village. Soon, my mother, sister and other refugees at Ulee Kareng were moved to a slightly more permanent barrack in Neuheun. I felt all alone in kampong, with only my grandmother by my side.

What I remembered the most from this episode was when my grandmother washed my clothes. My mother’s in law, whom I called Bapak, blamed me for making my grandmother did my laundry. He scolded me, but nobody came to my defense.

New Problem

Without even telling me, my mother got remarried and nobody bothered to tell me, either. I always opposed to the idea of my mother remarrying. I went to Aceh Besar because to be close to my mother, but she covered things up. I was not allowed to sleep with her and was asked to sleep at a nearby barrack.

My neighbor finally told me the truth about my mother’s marriage. I was furious and my blood was boiling. Mother was scared but I didn’t lash it out on her. I just didn’t speak to her for a month. My step father tried to be nice to me by buying me things. But I still felt angry.

I had to go back to the village to get a document stating that I would move to Aceh Besar. My mother and step father picked me up and I moved to study in Banda Aceh at SD 2 Klieng Cot Aron, where I had gone to school before the tsunami.

When my mother, sister and I got together again, I had expected my life to be happier. Instead, it was even more tragic. My step father and his daughter always created troubles at the refugee camp. Her daughter was a spoiled brat and never did any chores, leaving them for my sister and I to do. Later my sister married a soldier. My step sister also moved out to her aunt’s house in Lamseunoeng.

Living in the camp for four years, we finally moved out in 2008 to a house granted by Canadian goverment. My step sister, however, opted to live in another house by herself, although she still financially depended on her father. Meanwhile, he never gave my mother and I any money, whether monthly expenses, pocket money or for Idul Fitri holiday. My step father often accused my mother of bad things as well.

In 2013, I got accepted at Syah Kuala University, where I poured my undivided attention to learning mathematics at the pedagogic faculty. My mother could hardly afford to pay the tuition that we ended up selling our goats, which we raised for money.

I have to work hard to pay my tuition. But it doesn’t  matter how much tears I have to shed, or how much effort I have to make, I will fight for my own happiness. This is my life and only I have the right to it.

For me, life is like the piano keys, some white, some black. But when God plays the notes, everything turns beautiful.

*This story was originally written in Indonesian and translated by Hera Diani.

Intan Afriaty, 19, is a university student who lives in Banda Aceh with her mother. She likes to write and draw sketches. She aspires to be a teacher.