South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Outsiders Reach Forgotten Village

15 January 2005

Seventeen days after the tsunami, outsiders finally made it to Sayeueng.

They came in the form of one physician from the International Rescue Committee, a Washington Post reporter and an Acehnese interpreter. After a three-hour visit, the outsiders left with a woman who had an untreated puncture wound in the groin. Another woman with a broken foot would have come, but her husband was not around to give permission.

The visit was the only help that has arrived in Sayeueng since the Dec. 26 disaster. Villagers would like more, but they are not waiting for it. They are re-creating the village in the only way they can, using what was left after the giant waves swept through as starting materials. Flat-landers have become cliff-dwellers, and fishermen, farmers and small merchants have transformed into recyclers, carpenters and porters.

Sayeueng is a miniature version of what is happening all along the northwest coast of Sumatra island, the area of Indonesia hit hard by the tsunami.

Whether the residents of Sayeueng, and other villages like it, will be able to stay put, or will be forced by the government to move and become refugees is still uncertain. The answer will have major personal, political and humanitarian ramifications.

The issue also poses sticky practical problems for groups such as the IRC. The Indonesian government is proposing to build an undetermined number of resettlement camps during the coming months, something the IRC, a New York-based organization that works in 25 countries, generally frowns on. There are plans for seven camps in the Aceh Jaya district of Aceh province, where Sayeueng is located. The nearest camp will be in Calang, five miles northwest of Sayeueng.

Last week, the commandant in charge of disaster relief there, Marine Brig. Gen. Djunaidi Djahri, said he had secured more than six acres from town authorities and ordered 250 tents. He said the government would build temporary houses over two or three years, and permanent housing later. Djahri described the plans using a red laser pointer and a map on the wall of his walk-in tent.

Asked whether people in places such as Sayeueng would be forced to move out of the scrap-wood shelters set up on muddy hillsides into green fabric structures on level ground, he was noncommittal.

"It doesn't make sense for the communities to not move to a refugee camp, because they have lost everything in the tsunami," he said. In any case, he said, the army will not provide aid to villages whose residents refuse to move.

An IRC physician, Richard Brennan, and his small team reached Sayeueng by boat from the nearby village of Rigah. The vessel had a traditional Indonesian design featuring a high bow and upward sloping deck. Its skipper said it was the sole survivor of Rigah's fleet of 30.

Before the tsunami, Sayeueng had 168 households with 756 residents. Now, there are 159 households with 650 people.

The villagers found a single body; the other 105 people are missing. There are 70 children who lost both their parents. And like most villages in this area, it was completely destroyed, with not a single house left standing.

The numbers were provided by Hadimat, a man in his forties who is Sayeueng's mayor. Brennan asked to speak to him and was taken to his house, a two-room wooden structure on stilts high up the hillside overlooking the destroyed town.

Brennan sat on the floor of a roofless back deck and interviewed Hadimat. Soon, 36 people of all ages had gathered around the deck of the home, occasionally answering questions posed by Odon, Brennan's interpreter.

Brennan, 45, asked what the biggest problem in Sayeueng was.

"In health only?" asked Odon, who had helped Brennan with a health assessment of Calang in previous days.

"In anything," Brennan said.

Odon asked. The answer was diarrhea.

Brennan queried Odon, "Did you mention health?"


Before the tsunami, Sayeueng had a health post - a clinic run by a midwife, who was missing. Brennan asked what would happen if someone became very sick. If a pregnant woman needed a Caesarean section or a person had severe malaria, what would they do?


What about education? How many teachers were there in Sayeueng? Two, one missing, one wounded. The wounded one, a woman, was injured, a piece of wood driven through her leg.

Finally, how did so many survive?

When the water receded, signaling the coming of the tsunami, many of Sayeueng's residents knew to flee. The hillside was close, so the majority survived. But not all.

Masri M. Yunus, 24, a farmer, said he was in a coffee shop when the water arrived. He ran to save his family but did not make it in time. He grabbed a coconut tree, which broke in the water.

"He was thinking he was alone now. . . . He was thinking of killing himself by diving down into the water," Odon translated. "But another wave came, and he raced to the surface and realized he wanted to survive. So he rode the wave to the hill and pulled himself out." His wife, 5-year-old daughter, and 5-month-old son are missing.

Brennan then went partway down the hill, walking on steps carved into the packed earth. He visited a house where the injured teacher was stretched out on a mat, her face sweating and in obvious pain. She had a cut in her thigh, but even worse was a puncture wound in her pubic area, which was unmentioned in the group meeting.

Brennan could not tell how deep it was, but the woman needed medical attention. She agreed to be at the boat docking area in 45 minutes to go to Calang, where the Indonesian military had a field hospital.

As he toured more of the village, Brennan said his organization might find a role in providing a mobile clinic to several villages near Calang, including Sayeueng.

The tsunami had killed a high number of the region's doctors, nurses and midwives. Local people could not provide themselves with primary health care.

He brought up the idea that night at an IRC staff meeting in the organization's Calang headquarters - a huge blue tarpaulin raised as a tent. He mentioned that a mobile clinic might eventually put the organization at odds with the Indonesian military.

"How much are we going to be party to a forced relocation? If that starts to happen, what are we going to do?" he asked the group. "It's going to be very problematic trying to move these people. They are starting to rebuild."

After some discussion, the group agreed that the situation was too uncertain for decisions to be made.

But one thing was certain. Sayeueng was rebuilding.

The natural amphitheater formed by the hillside and the wrecked town site provided the perfect acoustics for something rarely heard in the United States: a symphony of houses being built entirely with hand tools. There was the tympanic thump of posts being driven into ground, the screech of sheet metal being worked, the rhythm of saws going through planks, and the brassy report of nails driven home.

David Brown

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa