Bereft Families Scour the 'Alive' List for Relatives
17 January 2005
When the waves receded and Dede Putra, 18, was able to return to his relatives, he brought the worst kind of news: the water had torn his little brother Maimun, 8, out of his hands, separating them. But was Maimun really dead?
In a disaster in which entire neighborhoods disappeared here, the odds that Maimun had survived were bleak. Even if he had, the chances of finding him again were almost as slim, as survivors were haphazardly spreading to makeshift camps across the area with few ways to get in touch with loved ones.
Still, hope brought his aunt and uncle to a Red Cross branch here on Thursday, searching for Maimun in page after page of a listing with the simple title "I Am Alive."
In Aceh Province, the destruction has been so profound - more than 100,000 thought to be dead, and with mass graves making identification difficult - that a missing persons list, like the one spontaneously started in the hours after the World Trade Center attack in New York, makes no practical sense. For this suffering city, the "Alive" list has had to do, as a focal point of the effort to reunite families.
In Maimun's case, against all odds, the "Alive" list brought joy.
"The cold truth is that if people are missing without a trace, it means they are dead," said Natalie Klein of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which started the campaign last week. In that environment, she said, a list of the living "is the only option."
Survivors who have been separated from relatives are asked to fill out a stark, one-page form with their name, age, sex, place of residence before the disaster and their temporary new address. The Red Cross is also offering free satellite telephone calls to victims, so they can perhaps find family members quickly.
In the program's first days, about 800 of these names have been tallied and posted on a bulletin board at the main Red Cross office here, which is operating temporarily in the showroom of a Toyota car dealership.
By early this week, the first "I Am Alive" book will be published and distributed to homeless camps and Red Cross offices across the region. Posters will also be printed and plastered around the city, said Pierre Barras of the International Committee of the Red Cross. As the list of names grows, new editions of the book and posters will be published.
Even though the registration of separated family members has just begun, the unbound version of the list was already drawing people to the Toyota dealership, which has been emptied of new cars and is filled with a mixture of relief workers and dazed-looking survivors.
Amiruddin, 38, a clothing vendor, was trying to find his wife and three children, whom he has already searched for desperately in the neighborhood where he once lived. Nothing remains there except for the foundations of the homes, not a trace of the life he once had.
"I have no words to express it," he said, as he filled out a survivor's form. "I have nobody: no wife, no children. May God help. I have faith."
The volunteers helping organize the effort, as has so often been the case in this city, are among the victims.
Suci Lestari Gunawan, 22, a field officer in the Banda Aceh branch of the Red Cross, has been unable to find 26 members of her family. The day before the earthquake, almost her entire family had gathered at her home to celebrate the pending departure of her grandmother for a religious pilgrimage.
The house is now gone and Ms. Gunawan has no idea what happened to her grandmother, mother, brother, sister and more than a dozen aunts and uncles. So far, she has only found her father, who was out fishing when the tsunami hit.
"Even if it is a .000001 percent chance, I believe in it," she said. "There is hope."
The effort has produced at least two reunions, the organizers say.
Against the odds, Maimun was one of the success stories. As his aunt and uncle paged through the list at the Red Cross office on Thursday, they suddenly came across his name.
Maimun and his relatives were reunited the next day, and just about everyone present cried, said Ms. Gunawan, who could not help thinking about her own family's fate.
"It is just so very, very sad," she said, standing amid hundreds of Red Cross volunteers and victims, on the shiny tile floor where flashy new sports cars were only recently displayed. "This disaster has changed us all forever."