Tears and trauma: Covering the Aceh earthquake
I am jolted awake in my sleep. My bed is shaking violently. I jump out and frantically try to unlock the bedroom door, but my panic is making me lose focus. Finally, I swing the door open and run out toward the staircase.
The house continues to shake. My videographer colleague runs out from his room too. We meet at the top of the staircase, and look at each other terrified, unsure whether to race down or to stay put. I stand still, waiting to see if the ground will shake further. It doesn’t.
I bend over and rest my forehead on the back of my hand, which is grasping the stair’s hand rail tightly. I stay there for a while, breathing heavily. My legs are shaking, my heart is pounding. I wonder how many more aftershocks there will be.
We return to our rooms albeit grudgingly. I check my phone: it is 2:26 am. I have only been asleep for an hour. It had taken me a long time to fall asleep earlier, as I lay on my bed, staring at the cracks on my homestay’s ceiling. I was exhausted but I could not sleep, terrified of aftershocks. Sure enough, it came. I wonder how I will sleep through the rest of the night.
I wake up at least 4 more times after that first aftershock, again sprung awake by my bed shaking – each time, propelling me out of bed in fear. By the time I get up at 8 am, I am far from rested. But I would rather be awake and outside, rather than in my rented room, constantly fearing another earthquake will come, that the walls will cave and the roof will come crashing down, crushing me to death.
Buried in rubble
I arrived the day after in Pidie Jaya, the area in Aceh hardest hit by the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that struck Indonesia's special region last December 7. The quake killed 101 people and destroyed thousands of homes, mosques, markets and roads.
When I arrived after sundown, it was eerily dark. The earthquake had cut off the power supply. We drove past broken buildings, mosques that sunk to the ground, cracked walls of houses, and mountains of rubble. Some buildings were completely destroyed, but others stayed completely intact.
During the two days after the quake, while we were there, rescue operations continued. Backhoes worked endlessly, sifting through rubble at the Meureudu Market, where scores were killed when the roof collapsed. Among those who died there was a family of 7, and a groom-to-be who was set to marry his beautiful bride on Thursday. (READ: Wedding day turned nightmare: Bride weeps for groom killed in earthquake)
He never made it to the wedding. He was pulled out of the rubble almost 12 hours after the quake, without bruises, but blackened. His father-in-law said it was because he had lost oxygen and couldn’t breathe, probably stuck underground in the rubble.
Charles Batlajery, the Commander of the National Search and Rescue’s Special Unit, told me me on Friday, two days after the earthquake, that they continued to search for bodies.
"We used sniffer dogs for the first time. The dogs pinpointed two possible spots where bodies could be buried," he said.
When I asked him how many were missing, he said the police and the military were giving different numbers. "Two to four."
One week since the quake, they have yet to find additional bodies.
In Indonesia, this misinformation and lack of coordination is common. The death toll in this tragedy alone was first said to be 102, then adjusted to 100 due to miscounting, and adjusted yet again to 101. In some cases, this lack of communication could spell the difference between life and death.
I imagine what it would be like to be stuck under the rubble, waiting to be rescued, hearing the noise above perhaps, only for those aboveground not to realize that I am missing because of a miscount.
I decide this might be one of the worst ways to die.
We met Agam, a 13-year-old boy, also on Friday. He had lost his whole family in the quake.
He was sleeping on the second floor of their home, when a window above him fell on him, and the floor gave in. It took two hours to get him out of the rubble. He thought he was the only one who had been trapped, but he later found out that his parents and two little sisters, who were sleeping on the ground floor never made it out. They were crushed in their sleep.
Neighbors say Agam’s father had called for help, even shining a flashlight through the cracks, from beneath the rubble. But soon the voice and the light disappeared. He wasn’t pulled out until about 10 am, 5 hours since the quake, along with his pregnant wife and two daughters. Agam’s 12-year-old sister’s face was flattened by the time they pulled her out.
They also recovered the pillow they laid on, covered in blood. (READ: Aceh earthquake: A family crushed to death in their sleep, and how one son survived)
When we met Agam, he was quiet one moment, then would speak slowly about what happened. Then he would turn silent again, gazing at the rubble that used to be his home, tears forming in his eyes. He told us he is traumatized.
"When I saw the bodies of my mom and dad, I felt very sad. I thought they were still alive, but they had already passed away," he said.
His family was buried in a mass grave the night of the earthquake, as he watched. I wonder how long it would take him to sleep properly, without nightmares. I wonder about his life without his parents and his sisters.
Nowhere to go
Others were luckier, having survived the earthquake as a family. But the struggle continues for them all.
On Tuesday, December 14, national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said 84,000 people have been displaced. ”People are afraid and worried about aftershocks, so they feel more comfortable in the evacuation shelters,” he said.
Indeed, residents of Pidie Jaya have opted to sleep outdoors. Evacuation shelters are mere temporary tents set up by the government, roasting hot inside. Driving through the towns, it was not an uncommon sight to see families sleeping on thin carpets, laid out by the roadside. Some built makeshift hammocks by tying blankets to trees, while others slept on tarpaulin.
The air was hot and sticky, and mosquitoes swarmed the night, but it was better than going home or going back inside.
“If we’re all together like this (with other survivors), we’re calm,” a grandmother staying in the shelters told me.
“Because when there’s a lot of people, we’re not afraid anymore. But if we’re alone in our house, we feel traumatized. Because if another aftershock comes, we all run. My small grandchildren are very afraid. Just now, he ran very fast. ‘Oooh another quake! Another quake!’"
She and her family found their house in ruins after the earthquake, and said she doesn’t know what to do when they take the shelters away. (READ: Burying the dead of the Aceh earthquake)
“I don’t know where we will go. I haven't thought about that yet,” she said. “If there are no more quakes, we want to go back home, but we’re worried because our house is already damaged.”
“Please repair our home,” she asked.
Another woman, this time a teenager, who I saw sleeping right outside her home that was still standing, said she would rather stay outside, so if another quake comes they can run away.
They can run away in case the buildings fall yet again, or in case a tsunami follows – this place after all, is the exact same spot where a tsunami hit in 2004 and wiped out up to 170,000 Acehnese.
“We’re afraid. Many of us are traumatized to go back inside the house… if we open the door, we feel like something might fall on top of us.”
I understand her fears somehow after my night at the homestay.
I was comforted by the idea that I would go home soon, to a safe place with no aftershocks, or no threats of a tsunami, where I could sleep soundly at night. But while mine had an end date, the fears of those in Pidie Jaya do not.
A woman I met in the hospital with scratches across her face from the earthquake, said she knows it is dangerous here, but stressed that this is her home. "We have nowehere else to go," she said.
I wonder how long it will take for these survivors to live normally, to be confident about returning to their homes. I wonder if the trauma will ever go away. – Rappler.com
Natashya Gutierrez is the Bureau Chief of Rappler Indonesia. She reported from Pidie Jaya, Aceh on the aftermath of the earthquake.