THE TURTLE WAS CRYING.
On October 9, 2011, 6 years, 10 months, and 275 days after the tsunami, Rizaldi sat with me in a coffee shop in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. He drew from his backpack his diary of the catastrophe.
The memories were recorded in a typical Indonesian school exercise book, decorated with cartoons and fluorescent colors. The manufacturer’s official title, “The Turtle,” was stamped on the cardboard cover, but long ago Rizaldi had inked an unofficial name below, in Bahasa Indonesian, with a blue ballpoint pen: “The Book of Tragedy, Earthquake and Tsunami, in Aceh and Northern Sumatra.” Beneath that, thick capital letters declared, “BY RIZALDI.”
A cartoon turtle dominated the neon pink cover of the diary. It wore a red, floppy sunhat with a chinstrap, and a goofy smile. It looked for all the world like an unstylish turtle tourist. Except for the fact that seven years ago, when Rizaldi had been thirteen, he had drawn tears spilling from the turtle’s eyes. The tears and the awkward smile were unnerving, dissonant.
Penned on the turtle’s shell were the words, “This turtle is crying… Aceh right now is crying,” followed by the plea, “Look again in thirty years. Look at the back of the book.”
“I want it to be like proof that the tsunami actually happened,” Rizaldi said, “that it existed, that [the outside world] came to help Aceh… Acehnese don’t talk about that time. Even you, you don’t know about that time of the tsunami. I want to share it to America, to Australia, to those and the world. It is important they know how we felt.”
The diary was decrepit. Two rusted staples clamped the cardboard covers together, but some of the pages had torn loose, fluttering to the floor as I opened the book. When I lifted the fallen paper, I found it soft with years, aged a nicotine yellow, the ink faded.
Seven years had nearly reduced the record to illegibility. Since the tsunami, Aceh’s villages and cities had largely been rebuilt. But as Rizaldi began his story in a quivering voice, his fingers drumming on the table, it was obvious he had not forgotten.
On the second page of the diary was an introduction.
“The terrifying occurrence of the tsunami,” it began in Bahasa Indonesian, “has left behind trauma and sadness. Everything I love and honor has been finished, swept away by the tsunami… Maybe this was all a warning, an answer to our actions, from Allah. Hopefully, the tsunami can make us understand the wisdom of Allah, so that we can improve the future.”
On 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 26th, 2004, the day after Christmas, the Indian Ocean was hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the third most powerful ever recorded on seismograph. The northern edge of the India Plate dove 15 meters beneath the Burma Plate. As the India Plate subsided, the Burma Plate shot upwards, displacing colossal volumes of water and unleashing the deadliest tsunami in world history. Geologists estimate that the energy released was about 550 million times more powerful than Hiroshima (equal to exploding 9,560 gigatons of TNT). Countries as far away as South Africa, 8,000 km. to the west, were struck, but the landmass closest to the epicenter was the northern tip of Sumatra Island—Aceh, Indonesia, Rizaldi’s home. The wave struck with such power that it literally obliterated barrier islands and swept over 5 km. inland. The wave was so strong it deposited a 2,600 ton ship 4 km. from shore.
Ultimately, the tsunami proved to be the deadliest in world history. Of the 225,000 victims, around 170,000 were Acehnese.
Before the wave struck Aceh, villagers living near the beach witnessed a miracle: the ocean retreated hundreds of feet from the shore, revealing swaths of glistening sand covered with stranded sea-life, from fishes to squid. Children, many of whom spend their Sundays playing on the beach, were the first to rush to gather the sudden bounty. Men and women from the villages soon followed. Minutes later, the wave blackened the horizon. It’s almost certain everyone saw the tsunami approaching—when it hit Aceh’s coastline it towered from 30 to 75 feet in height—but because it charged ahead at one hundred miles an hour, no one could flee.
Rizaldi’s village, Emperom, was 4 km. inland. Before reaching Emperom, the wave leveled Lamteh, a coastal fishing village. Photos of Lamteh after the event reveal the only things left standing: the concrete walls of the town’s mosque. The mosque’s decapitated dome was swept several hundred yards away to the middle of a rice paddy. Of Lamteh’s 9,000 inhabitants around 1,000 survived, most of whom were lucky enough to have been elsewhere that morning.
Abandoning the husk of Lamteh the wave trampled on, likely reaching Rizaldi’s home in less than a minute.
On Dec. 26th, 2004, Rizaldi’s father left the house at 6 a.m., just as dawn was turning the high cirrus clouds pink, to sell vegetables at the traditional market, Pasar Seutui.
When I first met Rizaldi he described himself as being from an “unpretentious background.” Before the tsunami, his father sold produce at the traditional market, his mother tended house, and his brother was studying at a technical high school to become a motorbike mechanic. They lived a simple life, but Rizaldi had great respect for his parents, especially his mother, who taught him extra lessons after school and checked his homework every night.
At the time of the tsunami, Rizaldi had already distinguished himself in his village’s middle school and been offered a scholarship to a prestigious private high school in Banda Aceh, the capital city 15 kilometers away. He had declined the award because his family couldn’t afford the daily bus fare. Still, his parents had decided to enroll him in an academic high school, rather than a technical school like his brother, ambitious that he could win a university scholarship and provide for their old age.
Already, Rizaldi was unsatisfied with anything but perfect marks in every school subject. He understood it was his responsibility to improve his parents’ lives.
At 7:15 a.m., Rizaldi asked permission from his mother to read the Koran at the balai ngaji. (A balai ngaji is a small informal mosque built in villages lacking a large enough population to afford a full sized house of worship.) She wrapped a lunch of rice and salted fish in banana leaves for him. He kissed her hand and scampered outside leaving her, his brother, and his five year old sister behind.
When the first earthquake struck the loudspeakers bolted into the corners of the balai ngaji fell, shattering on the tiles, and the stacks of Korans next to the pulpit collapsed, spilling onto Rizaldi. The floor shook so violently that Rizaldi and the rest of the worshipers were forced to lie down to stop from sliding around. As the wooden building shuddered and groaned above them, they prayed out-loud, their words overlapping to form a single greater appeal.
After the tremor finally subsided, the worshipers stumbled outside to discover palm trees uprooted, the town’s wooden houses collapsed or precariously askew, herds of disoriented goats and cows stampeding in circles, and the streets filling with other villagers bemoaning the devastation.
Less than two minutes after the first upheaval ended, the second began. As the earth rattled, someone started to sing the azan, the Islamic call to prayer.
Unlike the mutter of a Latin mass or the atonal chant of Buddhist monks, the azan is operatic and impressionistic, existing somewhere between prayer and keening song. Though the azan always employs the same words, each muezzin sings them differently, elongating favorite vowels, pitching different words to various keys, enlivening the familiar prayer like jazz musicians tweaking standards. Lā ilāha illallāh—a river of assonance and consonance too beautiful not to sing—ends the azan. Its meaning: there is no God, but God.
Rizaldi concentrated on the azan. The more he focused on the prayer and on Allah, the weaker the quake seemed. Soon the earth stilled. But the azan continued echoing over the wreckage. The villagers instinctively obeyed the call, picking their way toward the balai which stood tall amid the destruction. Rizaldi saw his family staggering towards him. His brother limped, blood smearing his leg, and his mother carried his little sister, who was weeping on her shoulder.
The third earthquake was the strongest, hurling everyone to the ground. Babies howled, children screamed, and the grownups restarted praying as the world trembled. The azan wailed on mournfully. But mixed in with the azan was a new low rumble, like the earth was growling, “or the sound of an airplane engine.” The roar intensified and transformed into an enraged shriek. That was when they first saw the tsunami.
The wave reared higher than the palm trees and was so thick with mud and silt it was black. Fragments of everything it had already consumed—houses, trees, cars, humans—swirled in its froth.
“When I saw the water, I thought I must run. But not even a motorcycle could escape it.” The crowd tried to flee. In the stampede, Rizaldi fought to stay close to his family. His brother disappeared in the mob. He lurched after his mother and sister into a garden of banana trees. They were holding hands, their knuckles white with terror. He wanted to link his fingers with theirs, but stumbled.
“When the wave hit me—I fell unconscious. I woke up at the surface. I thought, I must save myself. Then I thought: Where are my mother, my sister? The water was so high my feet could not reach the ground. I grabbed onto a floating board. I cannot swim so I was very afraid of losing the board. I believe an angel saved me.”
Rizaldi floated above the ruins of his town, scrutinizing the debris—uprooted trees, a dead cow, the wavy aluminum roofing of a house. The water was so thick with churned mud that he could not see his own chest. Flecks of mica and other minerals hung in the silt, winking in the sunlight.
He probed with his toe, but could not feel anything. His mother and sister had been right beside him. His mother had been holding his sister’s hand. For all that he could see he was the only survivor in a drowned world.
He did not see many corpses immediately. Bodies usually do not surface until several days after drowning, if at all, when the bacteria consuming the innards of the corpse have released enough oxygen to bloat the flesh.
Little by little, over the course of an hour, the water receded. Rizaldi was surprised to dangle off his board and be able to toe the muddy ground. When the water only sloshed around his waist he let go. Further out the ocean was calm, unimaginably flat and innocent, with only the faintest wind-swell. Wisps of cirrus cloud—favorites of Indonesian fishermen because they promise long spells of good weather—dabbed the sky.
Exhausted, he sat on the trunk of a collapsed mango tree which poked above the flood. For an hour he watched the water flow back towards the ocean. When it was gone he stared at the mud. Everything was covered in sludge, inches thick: silt dragged off the sea bottom by the wave. He didn’t see anyone else. “I was thinking, but not thinking, at that time.”
Around ten o’clock he noticed movement. He didn’t recognize the survivors gathering at the top of a nearby hill. It was almost difficult to tell they were human they were so crusted with muck. Only when he approached did he see they were his neighbors. “Have you seen my mother or my sister?” he kept asking. Everyone repeated a variation of that question. Many people were mumbling prayers.
The group walked towards the main road. The landscape had been scalped featureless by the wave, no trees or houses had endured, but as they stumbled inland they came across buildings which remained standing.
The edge of Emperom farthest from the ocean had been flooded, but not leveled, by the tsunami. It was there, in the shade of a corner store where he had often bought penny candy, he found his brother. Both were too shocked to do anything besides nod in acknowledgement and begin walking side by side.
The exodus continued, swelling as more survivors joined. The tsunami had left the road covered in debris—wooden beams, piles of shattered brick, overturned cars and motorbikes—so progress was slow. Water remained in standing pools, thin enough that the bodies were visible in them. “While we were walking, I came across many corpses: some men, although women, the elderly, and the very young outnumbered them.” Often Rizaldi recognized their faces: they were his neighbors.
One of the most unforgettable things about photographs of the tsunami’s aftermath is the positions of the corpses: tangled in the branches of a tree, their limbs dangling, or wedged under an overturned car in a slot too thin for a person to enter even if they wanted to. Neither the strong, nor the swift, nor the wise escaped: only the lucky.
Filling the headers of each page of the diary were illustrations and prayers. One drawing, titled “The Citizens Walking on the Main Road,” showed two groups of figures approaching each other, everyone throwing up their arms—it was hard to tell if they were excited at the meeting or exclaiming over the corpses on the roadside. The prayers decorating the headers of the next two pages displayed Latinate Indonesian script above twirls of Arabic: “We must happily give thanks to God!” and “Warnings from God on Earth are better than warnings from God at the final judgment.”
The brothers followed the crowd to Ajun Mosque, which had been converted into an improvised disaster relief center, in the neighboring town of West Lamteumen. They asked if anyone had seen their mother or younger sister. No one had.
On the steps of the mosque they sat and watched the wounded carried in, some on tarps and bamboo stretchers, others hobbling with an arm over a helper’s shoulder, and shivered at the wails of the bereaved as survivors began to arrange corpses in neat rows across the courtyard. “We’ve got to leave,” Rizaldi’s brother said.
The brothers began to walk south on the main road toward their grandmother’s house in East Lamteumen Village, reasoning that it was too far from shore to have been struck by the tsunami. “We felt exhausted, thirsty, shocked, and sad, all of these mixed into one emotion.” People crowded the street, fleeing inland or searching for family.
As the brothers picked their way through jagged broken boards, fallen lamp posts, and a herd of drowned cows, they learned that the tsunami had also inundated East Lamteumen. They stopped and squatted in the shade of an overturned car.
“Where should we go?” they asked each other, but quickly fell silent. There was nowhere left. For all they knew, they were the last members of their family alive.
Already, dogs were sniffing the dead bodies in the streets, chickens pecking at the inert flesh. For months afterwards, inhabitants of Banda Aceh refused to eat chicken and duck.
Then the brothers heard their names being called. Later, listing the moments during the tsunami for which he was thankful, Rizaldi rated his uncle’s miraculous arrival as high as the board he clung to while the tsunami swirled below him. He had hardly believed anyone in his family was still alive, let alone that they had rescued him.
The uncle took his nephews under his arms and steered them south towards his village, Ateuk. Just before the village they crossed a line: the farthest extent the tsunami had reached, marked by a layer of mud and debris. Within an inch, the grass went from silted, rumpled, to green and healthy. Ateuk had escaped the tsunami.
By 11 a.m. the brothers had arrived at their uncle’s house. Rizaldi’s aunt and cousins buried him in a hug. He clung to his aunt, even when she tried to gently disengage. He glanced over her shoulder, half expecting to see his father, his mother, or his little sister. But no one else ran towards him from the house.
The flashback was so strong that Rizaldi’s family members thought it was the beginning of an epileptic seizure and crowded around him, grabbing hold of his limbs. Rizaldi remembered the leaves of the banana trees waving in the wind before the tsunami, his mother’s and sister’s heads swiveling to look at the water.
As Rizaldi came to, he realized that if his aunt and cousins were alive, if he was alive, his parents and sister might have survived too. They could be picking through the ruins of Emperom right now, looking for him. They might be lying wounded under the rubble, calling for help.
Rizaldi wanted to start searching immediately, but his aunt and uncle sat him down and brought him food and water. He gulped down three glasses of water and cleaned a plate of rice. Then his aunt and uncle asked to hear what had happened to him.
“After telling our stories to my uncle and his family, I felt more natural. Until that time we had only been answered with sadness and horror. But there was my family! They ordered us to bathe with clean water, because our clothes, even our faces, were filthy with mud from the tsunami, and my body was still red, sore, and swollen from being hit by the tsunami.”
Naked, free of the ruined clothes, the mud washed away, Rizaldi still felt soiled.
Rizaldi’s uncle, cousins, and older brother returned to Emperom to search for his missing parents. Rizaldi had intended to join, but had been paralyzed by an agonizing migraine. So he and his aunt were alone when the aftershocks struck. He grabbed a box of instant noodles for provisions and rushed outside with his aunt.
A yell echoed over the crowd: “The water’s rising!”
“Excuse me,” he said, as someone shoved him. Then everyone around him was screaming, throwing elbows, clawing at each other, desperate in their struggle to reach the road leading away from the sea. In the crush Rizaldi slipped. Shoes pounded him. His aunt’s hand appeared and dragged him upright. They fled with the crowd. Soon, Rizaldi and his aunt were out of breath, far behind everyone else, but no tsunami arose.
Rizaldi and his aunt followed the crowd to the next village, Lambaro, before they had to sit from exhaustion. There was no food and water; “Above all, the rays of the sun stabbed us.” A rumor circulated through the refugees that someone had yelled the warning as a joke; “Surely that person was very cruel to say such a thing.”
All the corpses were being brought to Lambaro. The emergency authorities, afraid of contagion, were paying 100,000 rp. or about $10, a princely sum, for each body brought to Lambaro’s mass grave. “There were thousands of corpses all swelling and puffing up.” The deceased were laid out in neat rows. The first few hundred were stuffed into body bags, but the bags had run out so workers had shrouded the corpses with blankets, then shirts, then ripped- down advertising banners, before they had given up and left the dead staring at the sky. The uncovered corpses looked especially terrible because the mud and silt colored their skin an ashy gray. Rizaldi and his aunt sat beneath a tree, watching people bring stacks of bodies in pickup trucks or slung over the backs of water buffalos or horses.
Eventually, their cousin Imam found them and brought them to his house. When Rizaldi walked through the door he almost collapsed: his father, his brother, six cousins, his uncle, and more relatives were gathered there. In the lineup of ecstatic faces he immediately noticed two gaping absences.
My first sight of Rizaldi was of him pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant where we had agreed to meet. He was skeletally skinny, with a poof of fluffy dry hair, and a smile that showed off crooked incisors. He had heard I was a writer interested in the tsunami and invited himself to lunch.
When he introduced himself his movements were jerky, his handshake limp. He rushed through his sentences, words almost rear-ending each other. There was a strange intensity to his speech, as if he was imparting a secret, yet his tone was without affect, neither rising nor falling.
Rizaldi ordered an extra-large portion of fried rice then ate almost nothing. He ended most sentences with a shrill laugh and or an exclamation like, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that,” or, “I know I should do better.” Out of the blue he declared, “I’m such a bad person, such a bad person.”
He fidgeted constantly, his fingers drumming the table top, foot tapping the legs. He admitted that he didn’t like the other university students: he thought they sneered behind at him behind his back for being poor and awkward. He avoided my gaze, but during our conversation watched what seemed to be an invisible fly circling over my shoulders. “My problem,” he told me, “is that I can’t control my emotions.”
When an organization like the Red Cross, OxFam, or Save the Children responds to a catastrophe time is pressing and information scarce. Thus, NGOs employ checklists to organize their response and make sure the essential needs of survivors are met. These lists usually start with basics like food and water, and continue to things like emergency shelters and prophylactics, such as pamphlets describing correct hygiene, to prevent disease outbreaks in refugee camps.
If mental health is even on the list, it is very near the bottom.
In many ways, this prioritizing makes sense. Food, water, and shelter are immediate needs. For donors and NGO workers those items are tangible, quantifiable help.
After the tsunami, the international community reacted to Aceh’s disaster in unprecedented ways. Help came not just in immediate emergency relief—food, medicine, and the construction of refugee camps—but extended over a six year program orchestrated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Over 14 billion USA dollars were donated; the UK public alone gave over $600,000,000, around $10 for every citizen.
Whole villages were rebuilt by donor countries; Banda Aceh’s “Turk Town” and “China Town” are named after the countries who built them, not the inhabitants. In total, more than 1,000 miles of road and 100,000 houses were constructed.
But little attention was paid to mental health care.
The tsunami killed over 60,000 individuals in Banda Aceh, or about a fourth of the population. Many other towns along Aceh’s west coast were struck even harder—up to 95% of the residents of some villages died. Everyone lost a loved one—usually many loved ones. Most people saw friends or family swept away by the tsunami and heard their screams. Nearly everyone saw some of the 120,000 corpses while they lay in the streets or were collected, sometimes with bare hands, sometimes by pushing them into piles with bulldozers.
Four of the primary triggers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are: 1) being involved in a catastrophic event, 2) watching family or friends be seriously hurt or perish, 3) abruptly losing loved ones (especially many at once), and 4) prolonged exposure to the corpses of people an individual cared about.
Almost everyone in Banda Aceh experienced these triggers. Further exacerbating the risk for mental illness were the impoverished, uncertain, and dislocated lives tsunami victims led afterwards in refugee camps.
PTSD is a serious psychological disorder that can last for decades or even a lifetime. It affects an individual’s ability to control his or her feelings, sometimes leading to mood-swings and fits of violence, and often causes emotional numbing, from sobering cases of the blues to suicidal despair.
After the tsunami several NGOs provided short term PTSD counseling. Two, Save the Children and Northwest Medical Teams, offered art therapy for children. Others tried to get children to talk about their experiences using hand puppets. But all except the Norwegian Red Cross had packed up their operations within a year.
Kaz de Jong, head of mental health services for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders), acknowledged, “In areas like mental health care, which is not a high priority for development agencies, that third stage of somehow passing it along to someone else is seldom really done.”
Local facilities were similarly unprepared to handle any trauma lingering in the population. At the time of the tsunami, there was only one mental health facility in all of Aceh province, located in Banda Aceh. It had four full-time psychiatrists serving the province’s four million residents. The tsunami flooded the Aceh Psychiatric Hospital and many of its approximately 300 patents vanished in the ensuing chaos. The hospital did not return to full operation until three years later with the help of the Norwegian Red Cross. Though many Indonesian medical workers, including counselors, volunteered in Aceh immediately after the tsunami, most had returned home within a few months.
Today, it’s almost impossible to tell that Banda Aceh was devastated seven years ago. Ironically, the most salient evidence is that the capital looks fresher than most Indonesian cities, with (nearly) pothole-less roads, swooping modern bridges that contrast with the rest of Banda Aceh’s drab Soviet-like architecture, and rows of donated houses built to the exact same floor plan.
In 2010, the UNDP declared, “Aceh has been rebuilt, and in some ways rebuilt better.” Only the observant will notice a Brazilian Flag painted on a gifted university lecture hall, or the European Union’s halo of stars emblazoned on a city garbage truck, or a white and blue UN pickup truck honking a herd of cows out of its way. Even fewer will note the mass graveyards and the plaques memorializing the tsunami in every town, now largely overgrown, hidden under sprouting brush.
For three days after the tsunami, Rizaldi woke before dawn and spent the day searching the surrounding villages for his mother and sister. But he did not even meet anyone who claimed to have seen them alive.
On the fourth day Rizaldi refused to leave his uncle’s house. He remained indoors, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall. When family members tried to speak to him, he stared blankly into space.
At 3 p.m. his uncle ran in, exclaiming that his mother had been found: she was in Rizaldi grandmother’s room in Ketapang.
“My father and I went immediately to Ketapang. The instant we were there, I sprinted inside and I saw my mother, lying on a cot, sick. The three of us [Refanja, his father, and mother], were very joyful.”
Rizaldi only released his mother to look for his sister, excited to hoist her into the air and twirl her around. My sister must be in the bathroom, he thought, because my mother was holding her hand when the tsunami hit them and my mother would never have let go. But his sister’s absence grew longer and longer. Then he saw his mother weeping in his father’s arms and knew he could never mention his sister in his mother’s presence again.
Rizaldi barely left his mother’s side for the rest of the day. She seemed so fragile. He wanted to care for her. He slept that night on the floor beside her bed.
The next day, the family brought Rizaldi’s mother to the hospital. Because other victims filled all the beds, nurses provided them with a lounger. The doctors examined her, but could not discover the cause of the pain in her head, which spilled into her spine, or her exhaustion. They were worried enough to ask that she stay the night for monitoring.
Despite Rizaldi’s protests, “I wasn’t given permission to stay there with her because they were afraid I would catch a sickness,” from the other patients in the hospital.
Rizaldi’s mother did not improve. The mysterious pain squirmed from her spine into her heart and thundered in her head. They moved her to a bed where she barely sat up, even to eat. Mostly she cried.
Paralyzing guilt is often a symptom of PTSD as victims wonder if they somehow deserved the catastrophe.
Kaz de Jong, MSF’s director of mental health services, described the situation shortly after the tsunami as follows:
“Everybody is reacting differently. Some people are doing pretty well, for others it will take longer… Some people say they do not want to live anymore and they panic that it [the tsunami] is coming back and that when they wake up they get flashbacks… Some people can’t sleep, or can’t stop crying and there are people with problems of guilt. They say: ‘I could keep hold of two of my children, but I had to let the other one go, why did I chose the one I did?’
“I find it difficult when I talk with people who feel guilty about what has happened, like a 15-year-old-girl who couldn’t hold on to her mother in the force of the waves because her mother was bigger than her, or mothers that have had babies torn out of their arms by the water… But again, the feeling of guilt is a normal reaction and we do our best to show that they did all that they were humanly able to do.”
After the tsunami, the idea that natural disaster was punishment for Aceh’s misdeeds took hold of the whole province. Many Acehnese religious leaders preached it from the pulpit. Even today, if you ask people about the wave they will often begin by saying, “The tsunami was sent as retribution for our sins…”
One risk factor for adolescents with PTSD is having parents who suffer from the same illness. Some studies show that recovery rates for adolescents suffering from PTSD are halved if their caretakers are afflicted as well.
Rizaldi’s mother eventually left the hospital. The pain in her spine and chest never completely faded, though doctors were unable to explain its source. She still was occasionally leveled by bouts of exhaustion. She never talked about her lost daughter again.
After the tsunami, Rizaldi’s father was too “traumatized to continue selling vegetables in [the traditional market] Pasar Seutui, because when the tsunami happened, he was there.” Even when he could not find another job for two years, he still refused to return. The family could not afford their own house after the refugee camps closed, so they had to move in with cousins. Eventually, Rizaldi’s father found work as a janitor at Banda Aceh’s hospital, but he detested it, often spending the evenings complaining about the trash he picked up. Before the tsunami he had been a plump laughing man, but afterwards he smoked three packs of Indonesian clove cigarettes a day and dwindled to a skeleton, so thin Refanja could count the knobs of his spine in the back of his neck.
While Rizaldi was attending his mother at the hospital, he met many foreign volunteers, including his mother’s doctors.
“The people who investigated my mother were Australian and New Zealanders. Although I couldn’t speak much English, I tried to practice speaking with them.” The names of the foreigners were listed in the diary, all in capitals, “WADE, JAMES, DOOLAN, MCDONALD, MURRAY, MICHAEL, CAMPNY, ROBERTSON, BROWN. I studied a lot of English with them and I taught them Acehnese and Indonesian. Really, it’s an experience I can never forget.”
The last sentence was heavily underlined. He even remembered the day the volunteers left, the 13th of January, 2005.
One of Rizaldi’s last comments in the diary was a discussion of the eight things he was thankful for during the time of the tsunami. It started with, “Allah’s mercy given to us when facing the disaster of the earthquake and tsunami…,” continued to items like the wooden board which prevented him from drowning and the free medical treatment his mother received “because otherwise the expenses would have been out of reach,” and ended with, “I was able to speak directly with foreigners and learn about their cultures and their languages.”
Almost seven years later, when I met Rizaldi, he was an English student at the University Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh. Only in his second year, he was already a standout, known for compulsively diligent study habits and his ruthlessness proctoring of freshmen students’ tests at the university’s language center.
The last thirty pages of the diary, after the narrative ended, were covered with attempts to learn English, Arabic, and Korean. Pillar-like lists of vocabulary translated between all three languages and Bahasa Indonesia. One page displayed a family tree, the captions written in English, the fluid curves of Arabic, and the glyphic boxes of Korean. A few teenager-appropriate doodles were interspersed with the grammatical declensions—Dragon Ball Z cartoon characters and sketches of popular soccer players, a page full of attempts to refine his signature—but already his desire to gain the ability to communicate his story, to learn the words to tell it, was evident.
About a month after our first conversation, Rizaldi stopped returning my calls or answering my emails and text messages. I was afraid I’d offended him. But one day I mentioned him to a mutual friend and her mouth stretched into an “O” of shock, “You didn’t hear what happened to him?”
Over the course of the last year, she explained, Rizaldi had been acting increasingly erratic. His once sterling grades had slid, despite what she described as “obsessive” study habits. He’d feuded with co-workers at the university’s English Language Center, alienating the few friends he’d had. Recently, he’d flunked a pre-examination for a prestigious scholarship in America and had a fit in the testing room, bemoaning that he was failing his parents. “The last time anyone saw him was a few of the guys from the office. They said he was so far gone, he didn’t know who they were.”
A week or so before, Rizaldi’s parents had called the English Language Center, wondering which friend’s house he’d been sleeping at: he hadn’t been coming home at night. He hadn’t even been considerate enough to text his mother.
Acehnese culture expects individuals to process grief internally, silently. To share trauma is to appear weak, to lose face, especially if you are a man. Talking about mental illness is especially taboo. Acehnese society views mental sickness as Allah’s judgment on an individual and that person’s family. Unwed relations can have difficulty finding partners. Customers might avoid the family’s store or produce from the clan’s farm. Acehnese folk wisdom declares, “It is only a problem if you make the problem larger than yourself.”
Nowhere is this reticence more evident than in traditional Acehnese solutions for mental illness: herbal remedies, reciting the Koran, and, especially, the pasung. The pasung is a contraption similar to medieval stocks: wooden hand- or foot-cuffs. Normally, family members clamp a pasung around an ill victim’s feet and chain the boards to a wall in the family’s home. The device keeps the potentially unstable individual from causing problems in the village. Even more, once the pasung is locked and the door of the family’s house shut it’s almost as if the illness—and the individual—doesn’t exist anymore.
But attitudes towards mental health in Aceh are slowly changing. Recently, in 2010, pasungs were banned. Health officials began combing the population, unshackling victims and transporting them to the new mental health hospital in Banda Aceh. In an effort to make mental healthcare seem more appealing, the government demolished the hospital’s high walls, topped with barbed wire. New laws provide free healthcare to impoverished Acehnese.
When I visited the Banda Aceh Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. Sukma, a kindly, stout psychiatrist, wearing a headscarf decorated with sequins, showed me the facilities. The old hospital was abandoned but never torn down, so its ruins still lurked among the new buildings; the waterline of the tsunami was visible as a shadow, about the height of my neck, on the walls. Nurses in snowy uniforms and headscarves shepherded ragged men with shaved heads from room to room. As we approached the patients’ dormitories I winced at a sewage-like stink.
“I am a little embarrassed,” Dr. Sukma began, “to admit that we are overcrowded. We only have a limited number of beds, but we don’t turn anyone away, so many patients sleep on the floor. We have beds for maybe 250 patients, but over 700 in residence.”
We peered through observation windows, guarded by rusted iron bars, into a long institutional dormitory filled with metal beds naked of sheets or mattresses; nests of clothing lay on the floor between the cots, even under them, marking where most inmates slept. Graffiti had been carved onto the walls by scratching through the paint to the concrete below.
The patients crowded at the far end of the dorm, receiving plates of rice and bananas handed by orderlies through a slot in the barred door. A man, his lids open so wide his pupils seemed to float in them like out-of-orbit moons, turned and saw us.
“Mental health is a serious problem here,” Dr. Sukma continued, leading me further down the hall. “Aceh has a much higher incidence of mental health problems—especially PTSD and acute depression—than the rest of Indonesia. Indexes for anxiety and depression here are around 15% vs. 8.8% for the national average. For individuals affected with psychosis, we have almost four times the national average 2% vs. 0.45%.”
The wally-eyed man let out a hoot and began to shamble through the rows of beds, heading towards us. The other patients took notice and abandoned their lunches to follow him.
“In America, if people have depression, anxiety, or something else, they know to go to the mental hospital, but here people only think of health for physical things. People will usually go to the normal hospital with physical symptoms—they can’t sleep, they’re having headaches. In Aceh, people don’t even consider the idea that they can have trauma. Most people don’t even know what that is. They wouldn’t know what a psychologist is supposed to do. And if something is wrong they don’t want to talk about it. They just keep working on the farm until they break or they get better. That’s Acehnese—that’s Indonesian—culture.”
The wally-eyed man reached the window and gripped the bars. “Tell me why, dammit, tell me why,” he said distinctly, in Indonesian, his stunned expression never altering despite the rage in his voice, his pupils continuing their drift.
“Just ignore them,” Sukma said. “It’s going to be a huge problem for Aceh in the future. I was doing work at a coastal village that was hit by the tsunami and every boy in that school still had trauma from the event. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like when those boys grow up? Can you imagine what it’s already like in some of the villages where nearly everyone died and the few survivors saw their families swept away?”
As we walked down the hallway outside the dormitory, patients shoved their hands through the bars, clawing the air. “Cigarettes!” some shouted. “Money! A thousand ribu, only a thousand!” “White man!” A chorus somewhere in the back recited every dirty English word they knew, “Fuck! Shit! Whore!”, before they settled on “Fuck!” and kept screaming it like an 808 bass line.
“It’s like a ticking bomb that’s going to go off who knows when. It will be like a second tsunami,” Dr. Sukma said.
An enormously obese man shoved himself into the next window well and screamed, “I am not crazy! I am not crazy!” He raked his scab-covered face with one hand and counted prayer beads with the other. Rolls of his fat squished out between the bars. As I slowed to a stop, he began an Islamic prayer in screeching Arabic.
“Don’t look at them—don’t look at them in the eye,” Dr. Sukma ordered.
But I couldn’t stop scrutinizing their howling faces for a familiar puff of dry hair and an off-balance smile with crooked incisors.
In the diary, below “Tamat” (“the end” in Indonesian), was a carefully alphabetized list of Rizaldi’s family members who were killed, stretching eighteen names long and finishing with “Gustina Sari, my younger sister: lost.” Rizaldi was very careful to use “lost” for people whose corpses were never found, as opposed to “deceased” for bodies positively identified.
After Rizaldi disappeared, I visited the tsunami memorial and mass grave in Lohkgna, a town close to his former home in Emperom. Despite accurate directions from a villager, I drove past the memorial twice before discovering the gate, smothered in overgrowth. The earth beneath the entrance path had heaved up, scattering bricks. Inside the commemorative garden the trail shrunk, pinched so thin I had to turn sideways to squeeze through the immature forest—brush, ferns, grasses, sprouting trees—which stood high as my head. Insects raised a cacophonic racket and, above that, clear and sweet, I discerned three different types of bird song. I noted wild pig tracks at the edge of a muddy puddle.
As I batted aside branches, I wondered whether Rizaldi’s sister rested here. If her body wasn’t sucked into the ocean by the tsunami’s backwash it likely was mixed into the earth below.
And yet, Rizaldi very specifically wrote “lost” not “deceased.”
Even seven years later, people in Banda Aceh still whispered about miraculous homecomings, about individuals who were swept out to sea, ended up in Thailand, and had only recently found a way to return. I swatted aside the last of the brush and found myself staring over the beach, past the silvery foam of the receding tide dissolving on the sand, into the turquoise and glassy ocean beyond.
It had been nearly two months since Rizaldi was “lost.”
Rizaldi’s final word was the back cover. The back cardboard was the same neon-pink as the front and it too featured the turtle, though it had removed its floppy wide-brimmed hat with chin strap. The turtle gaped, perhaps in happy exclamation, a yelling laugh, but almost seven years ago Rizaldi had drawn rows of boxy teeth into its mouth, making the expression look vaguely like a grimace. Written across the turtle’s chest were the words: “Thirty years ago Aceh was crying, but now Aceh is laughing, cheerful, and advanced.” [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]
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