terse & at large

GRRRRR. Arrrgh. And sometimes a travel log.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Nota bene

Just figured it'd make it easier for people to scroll through all 14 parts of Meulaboh (and counting - it's ending soon, don't worry): I've added links to previous and next posts to each of the entries so far.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 14


Day 4 Actual
I wake up at 0515 hours this morning, 45 minutes before the wakey-wakey pipe, and only 4 hours after I fall asleep. It had been a restless night. And not just for me. Some of the guys in our mess are getting disturbed in their sleep too, with A getting it the worst. He hasn't slept much since we left Singapore, averaging about 2 hours every night, if he's lucky.

It's the final day onshore for those of us who are not Muslim. Tomorrow is Hari Raya Haji and there is a special ceremony planned for the Muslims at the mosque, then at Posko and later at one of the mass burial sites. I am also informed via SMS that we should expect the arrival of a VVIP at the school, and that I should take photos of the visit. I let the others know about the possible visit and accompanying media circus. Like me, they are not impressed. In the end, the VVIP does not show up, and we are glad for it.

On the shore, we are told the story of the battalion of soldiers who had been barracked, with their families, in the TNI camp along the coast. Like the firefighters who ran into the burning WTC towers on September 11, these men were too busy helping the people of Meulaboh (of want-away Aceh) after the earthquake to notice the waves coming in. Of the 700, only 8 survived. We'd spotted another body, only the day before, on our way back to the shore and it was clad in army fatigues. I wonder if he had been one of the 692 lost, washed and deposited more than 1.5 km inland.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #7
Originally uploaded by Terz.

I make the decision not to shoot too many photos today and to help my teammates on the last day of our efforts in the school. The Indonesian volunteers have come back as well and the work is moving at a pretty quick pace. By lunch, though, I have become my worst nightmare: I am burning books in the courtyard. I'm bound for a special place in Hell reserved for Qin Shi Huang Di, Nazis and fundamentalist, ultra-right Christians. Kim quotes Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), "Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people." Not exactly. But close enough. It's ironic, but fitting as well, I guess, for an ex-teacher. Books which are deemed irrecoverable are tossed into the flames. It's with some sadness I watch the pages curl and turn black, then to ash, from the flames.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #8
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We must have made an impression on the people in the neighbourhood. A boy cycles up to the school and shyly hands over a packet of USAid Daily Rations to us. It's a small thing, but it brightens our day: we know we're doing something right.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #9
Originally uploaded by Terz.

No one wants to eat the lentil stew and bean salad though.

(To be continued)

Having used up the 10MB that Flickr has given me for this month, the next installment will be posted only on 1 March 2005.


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 13


Day 3 Charlie
I can't get to sleep.

At 2100 hours, I give up trying and head up to the main deck.

Some of the others are there as well, watching the movie of the day, a tedious Hongkong movie trying to be arthouse. J comes to me saying that he's heard that I've some photographs of corpses and would I mind if he got a copy of them.

"... sure..."

I guess some people are still in the tsunami tourist, I'm-here-to-gawk stage. It made me think about how some of the bodies had been described as char siew (or any of the other types of roast meats) by some of the others on the trip and how sick it had made me feel. I would have thought that spending this much time in-country (though short by anyone else's measure) would have made people more sensitive to their surroundings, or about what they say.

I guess not.

It takes me another three hours before I am ready to go to bed. By then, I'm physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. From what I can see in the thumbnails as the images are downloaded into the PowerBook, the pictures are turning out great. It'll be a while, though, before I look at them again for post-pro work. I need to distance myself from them a while. For now, I'm feeling good at least about something.

Then we find out that we will be going back to shore tomorrow anyway; all the rumours having been proven false.

(To be continued)


Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 12


Day 3 Baker
At lunch, I take another walk through the neighbourhood with some of the guys. Because of the rumour that we were pulling out, the people from the other NGOs have dumped all their rupiah with Eddie and he's been asked to buy cartons of Marlboro Reds for them for the return journey.

We walk through the neighbourhood where people are preparing for Hari Raya Haji, in two days. There seems no reason for SAF's paranoia about safety; everyone is smiling, glad for our presence, and neighbourhood men are falling over themselves to have their pictures taken by me.

The market is busy, though the mood is muted due to the TNI soldiers, loaded for bear, patrolling the streets. But the noise of the market is already different from the deathly silence along the coast and we welcome it gratefully. Some boys follow us all the way to the first store where we buy up the entire stock of Marlboros, much to the consternation of the stall keeper. The boys don't say much, but they do pose enthusiastically for the camera whenever I lift either to my eye. We go to another store and, all the while under the watchful eyes of the TNI, empty its stock as well. By the time we spend all our rupiah, we've bought 16 (or more) cartons of Marlboros.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #4
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Our shadows follow us back to the Sekolah Muhammdiyah where we learn that they are actually enrolled in the school. Pak Ali spends a quiet moment asking after their families. Sham gives the bravest of the group several bottles of mineral water to bring home. Photos are taken, and, for the first time all afternoon, the boys put on a show of gravity. They are then told to expect to come back to school the following week.

By the time we're ready to go in the afternoon (and as it turns out, the other groups did not make an appearance), we have cleared two pathways (christened 'Mercy Road' and 'Relief Avenue', respectively, for the students' use, and reinforced the sides with wooden planks to prevent the mud from sliding back onto the path should there be rain (unlikely, since it is the middle of the dry season. The temperature today was 41°C).

Meulaboh, Day 3 #5
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #6
Originally uploaded by Terz.

At the end of it, this is the most fulfilling day of our time in Meulaboh. And tiring as well. As I write in my journal at 2000 hours back on the Endeavour, Tahar, Imran and Samuel are already fast asleep on their bunks.

(To be continued)


Thursday, February 17, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 11


Day 3 Actual
In the morning after we step off the FCU, we gather for a quick meeting at our usual corner of the landing point. Samuel's debrief for the previous day had gone on late into the night and he didn't come back to the Mess till after even I had gone to sleep.

It's one hour before the vehicle arrives to take us to the school. Scuttlebutt has it that today would our last day. The SAF's work in Aceh is nearly done and we are to leave as soon as they're ready to pull out. Samuel tells us to expect another group of volunteers to come to our school in the mid-afternoon: the hand over ceremony by the Singapore Red Cross to their Indonesian counterparts is taking place in the morning at one of the DPCs (Displaced People Centres) and by 3 in the afternoon, there will be nothing for the other two groups to do.

We feel our proprietary instincts kick in, along with some sense of violated propriety, and are outraged. We protest loudly, though we know that there is nothing that Samuel can do about it. After a while, all protestations cease and we get down to deciding what would be most meaningful to us, and Pak Ali, to complete before the other group arrived. One priority is the sighboard of the school, toppled over from its concrete base by the force of the tsunamis. Everything else, we would share.


We also decide to bring along more cartons of bottled water for the people in the neighbourhood, using the school as a distribution point. Since the SAF is pulling out, it seems appropriate that we give of a part of the massive supply of bottled water to the people who would need it most than to leave it in the depot, for who knows what purpose.

As we arrive, we notice that the TNI has turned up in full force today. They are next door in the orphanage, clearing up the mess and removing bodies from the heaped mud. Also on site were Dr Fatimah and rest of the medical team sent by Mercy Relief. We take her on a tour and introduce her to Pak Ali: the first step to getting more help for the school and to ensure that people don't soon forget about it or the people of Meulaboh.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We muck about for a bit, clearing up more of the courtyard and the mud in the front of the school, then restore the signboard of the school to its proud, rightful place. The second one, though, the one smashed in by the boat, is unrecoverable. Pak Ali tells us that the signboard would cost the school about the equivalent of SGD200 to replace.

Meulaboh, Day 3 #3
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We take note of that.

(To be continued)


Sunday, February 13, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 10


Meulaboh, Day 2 #10
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Day 2 Charlie
I'm back on the Endeavour and waiting for the camera batteries to be recharged (and to complete downloading the images to the laptop). While the others have their dinner, I'm sitting in the corner nearest the power points for all the electronic equipment I have that needs recharging and thinking about the day that has just gone by. It's the end of Day 2 and I've shot almost 950 images.

I haven't been eating dinners at all since we've been in Meulaboh. The strange thing is, I don't feel the need. I'm focused on downloading all the images, formatting both CF cards and recharging my batteries for the next day's shooting. I can't sleep either. My sleep has been restless since we arrived. I sleep no more than two hours per night, but every morning, I feel energetic enough to face another day on shore. It's a strange thing.

Somehow, I'm feeling more helpless now than I did while back in Singapore and wondering if there was something more I could do to help. I've documented, I've done carpentry, I've moved mud and dirt, I've made some sort of contact with the people in the neighbourhood. I've tried my best to be an ambassador. Yet, somehow, it feels that I've not done enough.

I was talking to Eddie earlier. He's right: words just aren't enough. There's nothing we can say to let people at home know what we've seen and experienced. At that moment, I remember wanting to go home as quickly as I can and holding my wife for as long as I can and just spending time with my family, friends and loved ones.

Samuel comes by in the middle another of the pointless debriefs he has to attend as team leader on the pretext of plugging in his mobile phone to be recharged. Apparently, we are to take on one of the other groups for tomorrow. The other two groups have finished what they're supposed to do and some have asked to come to the school, our school, to help with the clean-up.

No. Fuckin'. Way.

(To be continued)


Saturday, February 12, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 9


Day 2 Baker
I have become accustomed to the flies around me. They don't bother me when I am having my MRIs, taking a smoke break or while at rest.

While recovering from the shock of Pak Ali kicking over what we thought was a body, I notice the graffiti on the desks for the first time. It's funny how, despite the distance, the different standards of education and subjects taught in the classrooms, some things remain the same everywhere. The graffiti is, at times funny, poignant and more often than not, someone professing an undying love for another teenager. Some, in poorly phrased English, speak truths more painful than their young writers had anticipated in light of recent events.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #5
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #6
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We are tired, drained by the heat and our back-breaking work - and we seem to be getting more injuries. I had torn the skin off my left arm earlier today from a fucking stupid lapse. As I rested in the classroom, Kim suffered his first injury - a gash on his arm. His second, a near-miss, was a nail that had penetrated his boot, but did not get through his socks. Samuel had earlier stepped on a pair of nails he knew was right in front of him. We're losing our concentration and falling prey to fatigue - physical, mental and emotional. The heat beats down upon us all unrelentingly and I'm amazed to realise later that, despite drinking more than three 1.5l of bottled water, I have not once perspired.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #8
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #9
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Later, we recover a teacher's desk with still-damp textbooks and students' records with photographs in one of the drawers. There are exam or test results, written in the teacher's flowing handwriting, and comments in Bahasa Indonesia, which I do not understand. Each record is painfully neat and obviously written with much care. Among the items recovered is also a photo album of her students. In some photos, we see the school in better days. We are glad for it, because it gives us something to aim towards.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #7
Originally uploaded by Terz.

While this is happening, the work in the orphanage next door goes into high gear and more bodies are recovered. Seven in all, by the time we load up the SAF vehicle, done for the day. We are no longer sickened by the thought and the sight of rotten corpses don't hold the same fascination they did the first day. I do not take any more photographs of corpses.

We have learnt to ignore some things. But not the smell. As we pull away from the school, I violate SAF standing regulations on travelling in military vehicles and light up another cigarette.

(To be continued)


Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 8


Day 2 Actual
The day started with an updated version of the 'touch that tree and come back' routine of PTIs (Physical Training Instructors) from NS days, only it's the tank deck four decks down, through narrow corridors, and not a tree. Report at 0745 hours. Report at 0715 hours. Report now. Go to the tank deck. Go back to the briefing room. Left hand and right hand are getting divorced. Interesting thing is: the people supposedly in charge are conspicuously missing from the tank deck/ briefing room when this is going on. We are hot, sweaty and irritated even before we get to the shore, where no doubt, we will face more of this.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We return to the school. The pile of textbooks, so daunting on the first day, is almost dry, and we start moving them to the administrative block to prevent further damage to them. For the rest of the day, we engage in more carpentry than we'd done since woodwork classes in secondary school.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #3
Originally uploaded by Terz.

I remember Day 2 as the day of aftershocks. I first thought that it was my sea legs acting up on me. But when another aftershock hit and both Ridzuan and I, leaning against a door jamb, feel it at the same time, I had to re-evaluate. By the end of the day, the ground beneath my feet would have shifted six more times. A check with Pak Ali reveals that the locals are so used to the ground moving about under them that they're no longer surprised. Throughout the day, I fret about the drill in case another one of these aftershocks sends another series of waves our way. I send YM some SMSes which I think may have freaked her out.

It was also a day of false alarms. Two. We had been told earlier in the day that 30 bodies had been recovered and removed from the school, and that they're still not sure if every one of them has been found. So we are justifiably anxious when, digging into the mud with a changkul, Naz uncovers something which emits the smell of something we never could get used to. We stop work while a teacher rushes to inform the TNI personnel at work in the neighbourhood. Happy for the rest, on the first of the 40°C+ days we would experience, we were nevertheless completely unwilling to take a closer look at what looks like flesh underneath a layer of mud. We leave that area to the authorities. (It's only the next day that we find out that it wasn't a body after all.)

The second false alarm occurs just ten minutes later. Again, while digging into the mud, a changkul reveals something more grisly: what appears to be the armless, upper torso and head of a body. I take some pictures while the guys take another break. Twice in one day is more than we can take. While I'm taking photos, Pak Ali comes by, takes a look at the body, and... kicks it over. I nearly fall over backwards. The others are also mortified. My feeling of ill-ease does not subside even when it's revealed that what looks like the yellowed sinews of a human corpse is actually a half-rotted bunch of bananas.

Meulaboh, Day 2 #4
Originally uploaded by Terz.

I'm shocked at the casual disregard for something that could have been a body. And the nonchalant way it was done. Was it callousness on the part of Pak Ali? Or just a numbness we'll never understand? Over one-quarter of the population of Meulaboh gone, just like that, and the 30 bodies recovered from the courtyard of his school. Does this explain the seeming lack of community spirit we saw on the first day? Are neighbours whose lives have returned to normal (as normal as it can be) sitting around idle because they don't care? Or is it because too many have died, and they don't know where to begin? Are they still in a state of shock? I consider it all and I decide theirs is not for me to judge: they have seen far too much death in their lifetimes, more than I'll ever understand.

I am unable to continue. I take a break in the rest area with trembling hands, half-fumbling the cigarettes I try to light. I am smoking a pack of Marlboro reds every day - just to keep the smell out. And my nerves calm. It turns out I'm not the only one who's thinking this way.

It's becoming obvious that we are beginning to be affected by what's going on around us.

(To be continued)


Sunday, February 06, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 7


Day 1 Fox
We spend only six hours at the Sekolah Muhammadiyah on our first day.

By 1500 hours, the SAF vehicle comes by, along with instructions for us to load up. We pack up, feeling a little miffed that we've not done as much as we'd set out to do.

Before we get to the shoreline and the supposedly waiting FCUs, we make a stop at Postko, where foreign military helicopters bring much-needed aid to hard-to-reach parts of Aceh, to requisition wheelbarrows and shovels for what's needed to be done at the school the rest of the week. During the drive, we are suddenly aware of the sudden, almost arbitrary, change in the landscape. We turn a corner and find ourselves in a completely different world. Here, the buildings are intact. And the smell isn't that strong. People walk the bustling streets and visit roadside stalls as if nothing had happened to their neighbours just a block away. There is an air of nonchalance that the team finds hard to stomach.

Meulaboh, End Day 1 #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, End Day 1 #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Back at the shore, we find out that the other teams of NGOs have not returned. Eddie had suggested earlier that the Muslims in the team take a walk to the only remaining mosque on the shoreline to offer a quick prayer for the souls of the dead. For want of something to do, and irritated that we had been called away from the school before we could really get going, we agree and get permission from the SAF personnel ADC to the Task Force Commander.

During the walk, I am struck by the human detritus all around me: the shoe of a child's doll wedged in among concrete blocks; cooking utensils; a broken crockery; torn footwear; a woman's clothes from the shell of a building, bedraggled and scattered by the wind; more handbags; knitted purses; more water-damaged photo albums than I care to count; and prized family possessions of various forms and value.

Meulaboh, End Day 1 #3
Originally uploaded by Terz.

And all around us, the smell of death.

At one point, Eddie can't go on. I offer to go back to the waiting area with him, but he doesn't take it up. He wants to get to the mosque.

Meulaboh, End Day 1 #4
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, End Day 1 #5
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We arrive at the mosque and I witness a beautiful moment of the Muslims at prayer in this fragile shell of a building. We learn later that many of the victims, believing it to be the end of the world, rushed pell-mell to the mosque to pray instead of placing more distance between them and the tsunamis. Though the mosque was built on strong foundations, the walls offered inadequate protection against the fury of the sea; the waves caught up with them there and swept them away. I marvel at the suddenly flawed beauty of the mosque. It must have been beautiful once. Now it stands in the midst of all the destruction, a stark reminder of the tragedy. We spend the rest of the time in the mosque in silence, but everyone knows what the others are thinking: it may be only one school out of 153, it may be only one building out of thousands, but we will rebuild.

Meulaboh, End Day 1 #6
Originally uploaded by Terz.

It is another three hours before we're back on the Endeavour. But in that brief, wonderful moment, we became a team.

(To be continued)


Friday, February 04, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 6


Day 1 Easy
The Sekolah Muhammadiyah is located at one corner of a cross-junction. Directly across the road on its western side is an orphanage for boys. Across from that, and diagonal from the school, is another orphanage. For girls. Most of the orphans are enrolled at the Sekolah Muhammadiyah.

The chapter of the Muhammadiyah charity group, led by Budi Utomo from Jakarta, was in Meulaboh for a retreat when the tsunamis struck. They survived and have been helping with the retrieval and clearing process since then. They have not been vaccinated against typhoid and tetanus or given medication to prevent malaria and cholera. They have remained in Meulaboh from an overwhelming need to.

Meulaboh Town #4
Originally uploaded by Terz.

There is a commotion from the boys' orphanage next door coming from some of the Muhammadiyah workers. One of them, Rizal, approaches us to ask if we could help them remove the bodies from the mud. They have not been vaccinated. We have. Sham and I are uncertain whether or not we're allowed to even touch any recovered bodies, let alone move them, so we defer to the SAF personnel with us. Amran, who has, since our walk, removed his SBO (skeletal battle order) and has been helping out with the cleaning up at the Sekolah Muhammadiyah, tells us that if they had the proper equipment (I am to learn later that that means masks, gloves, body bags and a disinfectant spray) with them for dealing with bodies, they would have helped. Unfortunately, they aren't carrying anything of that sort in our vehicle, so we can't help in any way.

We decide to take a look anyway. I grab my cameras from the rest area in the classroom and follow Rizal to the orphanage.

Again, the smell hits us before we see the corpse. Corpses. The first had already been removed from the mud. It is a partial body*, placed under an orange body bag. The wind had blown back a corner of the body bag to reveal the grisly remains underneath. Or it could have been arranged that way for us. Only the lower left leg of the person has been recovered. From the dimensions, we know it is a child's leg. I snap off a few shots and turn away.

Rizal then tells us they have found another one.

He leads the way up piles of rubble to where the second body* lies. It's an adult this time. And almost complete. He lies on his side. His body is protected from the sun by layers of mud and is thus, mostly untouched by decomposition, though on several areas of his exposed torso, the flesh is turning dark blue. A gold ring glitters from his left hand. As does a watch from the wrist. I try not to find out if the watch still works. The smell is stronger. Much stronger. But I document the body, if necessary, for the authorities.

Meulaboh Town #7
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We stand in silence for a while and, one by one, walk away. There is nothing we can do. Fortunately we are offered a distraction to take our minds off the bodies. Rizal, clad only in black rubber boots, has stepped on a rusty nail which has penetrated the sole of the boots. We try calling Tahar on the cell phone, but the mobile connection chooses not to work at that moment. Fortunately, Tahar is already on his way over from the school. We wave frantically at him and help Rizal to the porch area at the school.

There, Tahar tends to the wound and dispenses advice, in case it becomes septic.

The first small bright moment of the day.

(To be continued)

* The photographs found at these links may be disturbing to some. Viewer discretion is advised.


Meulaboh, Part 5


Day 1 Dog
Feeling useless, I take a walk.

My escort, 1SG Amran of HQ Guards, tells me that he's been in-theatre since 2 January 2005. He's gotten used to the sights and the smells of the place. And the heat. He's invaluable as I wander the neighbourhood; he translates for me, and asks the locals, on my behalf, to smile for the camera:

"Senyum. Terima kasih."

I tell myself not to wander too far from the school. But the shattered land draws me further afield. I go further than it is prudent to do so. But the locals are friendlier, now that they know we have come to repair the school. They smile and wave at me while going about the grim and necessary business of rebuilding their lives.

Meulaboh Walkabout #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

I note that entire blocks are flattened. Here, there is no one who'll rebuild. I learn from Amran that two whole villages were wiped out by the tsunamis. I also find out that when the SAF arrived in Meulaboh, they were retrieving bodies from the streets and off of trees.

Meulaboh Walkabout #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

A man sees Amran's uniform and approaches us. He tells Amran that there is a body near his house. Or so he thinks. He cannot be sure because no one can spot it. But the smell of death is unmistakable. He asks if we could help him - he fears disease and infection; he fears for his family. He takes us to the spot. In the mess of fallen coconut trees and the wooden debris of smashed huts, the stench of rotting decomposition fills our senses. But we do not spot the body.

Meulaboh Walkabout #3
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh Walkabout #4
Originally uploaded by Terz.

After a while, we retreat from the spot. He tells us that most of the families in this particular block survived, though not the ethnic Chinese family at the end of the street. That entire family was lost, he says matter-of-factly. He tells us that rebuilding is difficult because the infrastructure is no longer there. They have no water, nor electricity nor a functioning sewage system. They lack the materials to properly rebuild. And the streets here, I see, are choked with the same mud from the school.

Amran promises to notify the relevant authorities about his concerns and about the body and we leave to him to his current preoccupation.

We meet a few children, happy now that there are no classes at the moment. I do not think they would have happily posed for me if they'd known I had come with a group to get their school ready for lessons the next week. For now, they smile. And I marvel at their resilience. They survived. They are innocents who may not yet fully understand that their world has changed irrevocably.

My walk takes about two hours. I am sunburnt by the time I return to the school. I feel no better than I did when I started my walk. As I rest, there is a commotion from some of the other volunteers from the local chapter of the Muhammadiyah charity organisation.

We were about to see our first body.

(To be continued)


Thursday, February 03, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 4


Day 1 Charlie
We had been assigned to clean up a school, the Sekolah Muhammadiyah, one of only seven of the 153 schools still structurally sound, to get it ready for use on Monday, 24 January 2005.

It is located in the neighbourhood hardest hit by the tsunamis. As we drive in, there is at least three feet of dark mud piled on both sides of the lane. Locals either eye us with suspicion, or with open welcome.

We get to the school and are suddenly struck dumb by the enormity of the job before us. The school from the outside, is nondescript. The same three feet of mud is all over the front of the school, along with the skeletal remains of a mud-caked fishing boat, lying on its port side, right next to the stone signboard of the school, which it had knocked down while carried inland by the force of the tsunami. As we climb off the SAF vehicle, labourers hired by the school's principal are hauling away the boat's engine.

Meulaboh, Sekolah Muhammadiyah #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Meulaboh, Sekolah Muhammadiyah #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

We pause for a moment when we see what's inside the school: there are four buildings, each forming one side of the quadrangle in which there once was a volleyball court/ assembly area. The entrance is through the administrative block, with the principal's office and teachers' staff rooms. To our right are the science laboratories. Directly ahead of us is a two-storey building containing 7 classrooms. To our left, the library block and the classroom for religious lessons. That building bore the brunt of the tsunamis, the pillars facing the main road outside were bent at an angle - like someone had taken a sledgehammer to them, smashing them in at about 4 feet off the ground - forcing the roof to tilt dangerously in that direction.

Meulaboh, Sekolah Muhammadiyah #3
Originally uploaded by Terz.

The principal, Pak Ali, tells us what is needed to be done: the tables and chairs need to be returned to the classrooms, cleaned and free of mud for the first time in three weeks; the mud in the quadrangle (I learn later that the same mud held 30 bodies - I resist trying to find out if these bodies had been affiliated in any way to the school) needed to be cleared; and the books that now line the entire right side of the quadrangle needed to be dried, cleaned and checked for usability.

We were told that we could leave our belongings on the second storey classrooms and get to work immediately. I let my team go up first; after all, my role was not to get dirty. I take more pictures of the quadrangle. When I do get up the stairs, the first thing I see is the abandoned handbag and the photographs scattered all around it.

Meulaboh, Sekolah Muhammadiyah #4
Originally uploaded by Terz.

For a moment, my legs are leaden.

The photographs are of someone's wedding. Someone's child as a baby. Someone's child in a soldier's costume. Happy family moments.

All the photographs bear signs of water damage.

For the first time in over ten years, I pause to whisper a prayer.

(To be continued)


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 3


Day 1 Baker
The drive through the town to the school we've been assigned to, only about 1.5 km from the shore in actuality, was done in silence. Each of us was lost in our own thoughts as we watched the destruction up close. The banter that had developed during our enforced confinement and gradual building of camaraderie onboard the RSS Endeavour was missing for the moment.

Meulaboh Town #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Our eyes took in the flattened and burnt-out buildings and the scores of listless people wandering the dusty streets, at a loss for where, perhaps, to begin helping out. Mentally, I was not prepared for what I was seeing.

Meulaboh Town #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

I recall the pre-arrival briefing by the CMR (Civilian-Military Relations) personnel from the SAF and I think: someone lied. Someone said that the critical phase was over and that rebuilding will begin shortly. Someone didn't say anything about the smell; the heavy feeling in the air; the bright orange body bags that are still being filled when we arrived; the flags fluttering weakly in the breeze, each signifying a body found because of its smell, but, without heavy equipment, would remain buried underneath rubble, rotting; someone didn't see the bloated disfigured husks that used to be human being dragged out from under debris and torn vegetation, almost a month after the tsunamis changed the lives of these people forever.

Before we left the shoreline, we were told by someone from the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) that further along the coast from where we were, on a peninsula, were mass graves being dug in preparation for the bodies yet to be recovered. The latest one to be filled, had contained up to 5,000 bodies.

Meulaboh Town #3
Originally uploaded by Terz.

Looking at the town around us, we finally begin to understand the scale of what we're facing.

(To be continued)


Meulaboh, Part 2


Day 1 Actual
After being made to wait for several hours before we actually came ashore, the first thing that struck us was the smell: It was a curious mix of dust, mud, burnt timber, raw sewage and of course, decomposition.

The last wafted up our noses whenever a weak breeze would spring up. It made my eyes water; for more reasons than one.

The land, when seen up close, was more battered than it had appeared the previous night. Up close, we could see the piles of debris gathered throughout the coast. Fallen pillars with their steel mesh hearts, all mangled beyond reuse. From time to time, we would chance upon household items, a child's toy, someone's shoe, all manner of personal artefacts left to dry in the sun. Here, a stall once stood, packets of tidbits now scattered on the sun-blistered ground. There, was once a hospital; now only the twisted remains of once-sophisticated and expensive medial equipment are left.

Meulaboh Boy #1
Originally uploaded by Terz.

A boy rides up the road towards us. I snap a few quick shots of him. He stops, uncertain. I wave at him, reassuring him that the large boxy thing in my hand isn't a weapon. He approaches our group wearily, dead eyes scanning the area. For something familiar, perhaps. He doesn't respond to my smile - just stares out at the sea. From time to time, he glances over at the unloading of pallet after pallet of humanitarian aid from the FCU (Fast Craft, Utility). His face registers neither joy nor relief.

Sham asks after him. He doesn't say much, except to reveal that his entire family had been claimed by the waves. He's alone now. Living off the generosity of the world which may soon forget and move on.

Meulaboh Boy #2
Originally uploaded by Terz.

He rides away after a while. We do not get his name.

(To be continued)


Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Meulaboh, Part 1

I left Singapore on 14 January 2005, ostensibly to 'refind my centre' (as my wife puts it). I had been unfocused and listless for a while (since my 33rd birthday, actually). It didn't help when the events of Boxing Day happened. I was lost, helpless and feeling that I should be doing something; to be anywhere but in Singapore. So when I was asked to go on this trip, I said yes.

I met up with the other guys on my team on 13 January 2005 for the first time for a briefing. It wasn't an instant connection. Some of them I had met before at Kovan, where volunteers were helping pack food, clothes and other necessities for the tsunami-devastated area, but most of them were strangers. Our mission was to provide aid to the people of Meulaboh, one of the hardest hit areas of Aceh. We were to lay the groundwork for future missions to the region, to recce the place for specific areas where we could be of maximum use and to establish trust and belief in the locals. all very high-flown and noble, but deep down, I was uncertain of the extent to which we would achieve these goals. Furthermore, my role on the trip was to be more 'hands-off' than the others. I was there to document. Period. It felt unfair that my hands wouldn't be as dirty as everyone else's.

We arrived in-theatre on 16 January 2005. From the flight deck of the RSS Endeavour, we could see the extent of the destruction for ourselves. The sunset alone would have commanded premier prices if this was a beach resort for the idle rich. Instead, the sun's ebbing rays revealed to us a vista both painful and surreal.

There were at least three plumes of thick, black smoke rising to the air, casting a strange purplish glow over the entire coast. The coast itself was flat and a dirty, muddy brown. As far as the eye could see. There were a few hollowed-out buildings, but little else.

Meulaboh Coast
Originally uploaded by Terz.

"My God! The whole place is flat," was my first SMS message to Tym.

I spent that night thinking about what I would find once we were on terra firma.

(To be continued)