Indonesia: Survivors learn tools to help heal trauma

Emily Will

Recovering from the Dec. 26 tsunami is about more than replacing buildings or clearing debris. Residents also must heal from the trauma of their losses.

In the disaster's wake, three Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partners in central Java joined forces for the first time to form the Forum for Humanity and Peoplehood to work at trauma counseling.

Among their early actions was to invite MCC consultants Evelyn and Karl Bartsch, of State College, Pa., to Indonesia for a month to work with them in training a group of some 30 individuals -- nurses, teachers, counselors, relief workers, students and others -- in trauma counseling techniques.

Before the Bartsches' arrival on Jan. 23, the organization had translated major portions of the couple's trauma counseling workbook into Indonesian and had arranged for them to meet with an imam, an Islamic leader, to add culturally appropriate exercises and reflections.

After a week-long seminar in Java, some of the new trainees headed to Banda Aceh, one of several cities and towns on Sumatra island that bore the brunt of the catastrophe, called by the World Bank "the world's worst natural disaster in living memory."

Sitting on new floor mats in the airy dining hall of a Banda Aceh nursing school that had been scrubbed free of traces of tsunami muck, the trainees worked with a group of Acehnese to teach them the tools of trauma counseling.

MCC funded the hall's cleanup, which created a tranquil oasis on an otherwise muddy, tsunami-disheveled campus.

On the final day of training, the local group put their skills to the test. One of the participants, a university lecturer, had arranged to have his surviving students -- 45 out of 100 -- come for a trauma-incident debriefing.

The participants seemed pleased to have the opportunity to share what they had gotten from the workshop with the 36 young adults. Later, one participant said that "by helping others we heal ourselves."

Both groups of trainees -- the first in Salatiga on Java island and the second here on Sumatra island -- enthusiastically embraced the teachings. Some of the Banda Aceh trainees decided to form an ongoing local organization dedicated to trauma healing.

This energetic response may be because, as a World Bank report states, "No family in the region is untouched by the disaster. Hundreds of communities have been washed away. The people of Aceh and North Sumatra have been severely traumatized by the scale of the tragedy."

Some of the trauma counseling trainees are survivors. One young woman spent the harrowing day of the earthquake and tsunami stranded on a shop's rooftop, and slept on the streets for a week afterward with little to eat.

Another, Mirisa "Icha" Hasfaria, age 22, lost half her immediate family. A university student in Jogjakarta, a city in central Java, she spoke with her mother in Banda Aceh shortly after the earthquake early on Dec. 26. Her mother assured Icha that although the quake had been especially forceful, the family was fine. Moments later Icha heard shouting in the background, right before the phone went dead. After seeing news of the tsunami on TV, Icha hopped aboard the first plane to Banda Aceh.

She went to the house in which she had grown up, 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the beach. It was destroyed, and the area eerily desolate. Icha at last found a neighbor who told her that her mother was alive and had been taken to an area on the city's outskirts

Icha eventually located her mother at a medical post. In spite of antibiotics, her mother could not stop shaking, as though from cold. Icha already knew her 26-year-old brother, her grandmother and an aunt were alive and staying at another aunt's home. She took her mother there and they exchanged experiences.

The brother had been with Icha's father but the waves had dragged them in opposite directions, and the father drowned. Icha's 23-year-old sister and her 16-year-old brother likewise perished in the tsunami.

Icha's mother had been holding her youngest child, a 5-year-old boy, when the powerful wave tore her son out of her arms and into the churning water. Of a family of eight, one parent and three children remain.

Icha's 73-year-old grandmother and a 9-year-old granddaughter survived by clinging to a tree.

Icha says her newly acquired trauma counseling skills are making a difference in her ability to cope with her own grief and to reach out to others. She has learned that it's OK, even important, for her to take care of herself so that she maintains the inner resources to reach out.

Icha put her listening skills to work one recent evening as her grandmother retold her story to Icha. Before, she would have jumped in and tried to give advice, perhaps inadvertently inducing guilt in her grandmother, Icha said. Now she understands how uninterrupted listening -- simply affirming what the person says and feels -- represents a healing gift.

As the Bartsches frequently say, "To listen to a trauma victim's story is to be on holy ground."

The stories need not involve words. The Bartsches taught tools to elicit stories and feelings from victims unable to use words. Children, for example, may draw their story when unable or unwilling to tell or write it. Icha hopes to use some of these tools with her 9-year-old niece.

The group witnessed Icha's first steps toward her own healing during the training -- from an agitated state to a considerably calmer one.

"All these devastated buildings we see here in Banda Aceh can be rebuilt. But for people to rebuild themselves they have to have the spirit to do it, the feeling of power of being able to act," remarked Karl Bartsch. "At the beginning of this workshop I told the group that feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are symptoms of trauma. Many of them were experiencing these. But at the end of the workshop they said, 'Now we are not helpless.' That they established their own group to continue this work is a sign of this."

As for Icha, she will return to the university. She wants to fulfill a promise to her father to graduate this year. He was one of just two family members to support her decision to study international relations, and he phoned her monthly with news and encouragement.

Icha knows that Dec. 26, 2004, changed her life forever. For one, she has new responsibilities. She has promised to financially support her mother after graduation. Icha will continue to mend from her own grief. And she now feels a personal commitment to use the trauma healing tools to reach out to others who have lost belongings, their loved ones and belief in their own selves.