Indonesia: Aceh's children renew friendship with the sea

by Teresita P. Usapdin in Aceh, photos by Amalia Soemantri and Mohammad Kholifan

Dressed in a brand new white T-shirt and a pair of white rubber gloves, a bright pink plastic bag in hand, the children walk briskly in groups to their assigned areas on Ujong Bate beach in Aceh Besar.

Their task on this Saturday is to pick up the rubbish littering the grey sandy shore: the branches of trees, seaweed, bottles, food containers, slippers and torn clothes.

Almost six months after the killer tsunami swamped their land, the children have finally mustered the courage to return to the scene of the disaster that claimed the lives of their loved ones and shattered their young lives.

"The tsunami took both of my parents. I hated the sea," says 13-year-old Salbiana as she makes an effort to tie up a bagful of garbage.

"But maybe it was not the fault of the sea. It was just meant to be. My parents said so, in my dreams," Salbiana adds, "and I believe them."

Salbiana, a sixth-grade pupil who was in school with her brother when the disaster struck Indonesia on 26 December 2004, said her father used to take them to the beach every weekend.

"My father was always fascinated by the sea. He would always stare at the waves and tell me, 'I see magic in the sea. It can be a man's best friend when it is calm, and worst enemy when it is angry. We don't know what can make it angry, and when. But we should always treat it well'," she recalls.

Handing over the pink bag of trash to a man standing by a dump truck, she admits that she has still to get over the deaths of her parents, but that she has learned to forgive the sea. "My parents belong to the sea now. I must make friends with the sea and continue to take care of it, so it will also take care of my parents."

Salbiana is among the first batch of 110 tsunami-affected children in Aceh province brought by the Indonesian Red Cross (Pelang Marah Indonesia, PMI) and the Turkish Red Crescent to Ujong Bate beach as part of their psychological support programme - to renew their friendship with the sea environment.

Marwan, a local psychologist, said many orphaned and traumatized children are refusing to go back near the seashore. "We are treating them in smaller groups so we can closely monitor their behaviour."

Eight-year-old Mohammad, who lost both parents, two sisters and a brother in the tsunami, used to cry and call out for his parents whenever he saw the sea, according to Marwan.

"Apparently, now he can take it," Marwan says, pointing to Mohammad who is tinkling what looks like a broken chime bell as he takes a rest on the sand, his half filled plastic bag beside him.

"Hey Mohammad, what is it that you've discovered?" Marwan calls out.

"A toy bell for my mummy and daddy, my sisters and baby brother. I'll give it to them so I will hear where they are," the boy shouts back, as he throws the toy at the sea.

"Children always amaze me. They are very intense and sensitive," Marwan chuckles. "That's why we have to guide them. We are not always sure how they are really taking things, or what emotions are developing within them."

Yusri, a nine-year-old boy who lost both parents to the tsunami, wades through the water with the pink bag covering his head: "You love the sea, don't you?" says Marwan as he joins Yusri in the water.

"I miss my mother and father. We used to come here," Yusri takes the bag off his head to put into it a piece of wood he found floating in the sea. "I know they are here now and they can see me. They must be playing with the fish. I wish I could join them." Yusri pauses, staring out at the water.

As he puts his arms around Yusri's shoulders, Marwan explains: "We must stop unhealthy feelings developing in children, while the incident is still fresh. We should allow them to confront their fear and their 'enemy' slowly but surely, so they can get over it quickly."

Recognising the urgent need to help tsunami-stricken families, especially children, PMI has trained over 100 volunteers in psychological support and other skills in Aceh province.

PMI volunteer Dr. Tri Wahyudi said the need to reach out to those affected, especially the children is tremendous: "Children are fun-loving and friendly. We want them to remain that way even when things get rough."