Maybe I’m just fortunate. I wasn’t among the victims — at least half of the Banda Aceh population — who were swept away on Dec. 26.
I’ve never experienced anything so terrible. I was shocked and confused. Half of our pretty town was flattened. The places I used to visit were gone. Many people I knew were suddenly “”missing””.
I live on the outskirts of the town; it isn’t an elite area, but it was safe — but only just: it was 500 meters from the approaching edge of the black waves that swallowed a vast area of the town.
Of course, during the strong earthquake that hit about 30 minutes earlier, the probability of the waves reaching us never crossed my mind as I was taking pictures of its aftermath.
Then I met my friend Jairin from the Medan-based Waspada daily. He wasn’t covering any story. He was crying, in a panic, trying to find his wife. He said her hand had slipped from his grasp when they were running from the waves…
Everyone else was running around, trying to find their families, their loved ones who had suddenly vanished in only a matter of seconds.
I know I’m a journalist, but it was the most difficult time I ever had in doing my job. There was no electricity, no Internet. Even if there had been, there was no way I could have concentrated enough to file a story.
I was terrified that the tremors and waves would come again — the same fear that was overwhelming the rest of the town. I was consumed by the whereabouts of my friends: Were they dead? Where were they?
It was a great relief to find a few of them. We met near the local headquarters of the Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI), exchanging stories and sharing three packages of instant noodles among six people. We cooked them with a branch off a tree in an old saucepan that we found in the ruins. Thousands of residents had to queue for hours under the close watch of soldiers just to get their rations of rice and noodles.
I went to Medan with a friend on the fourth day after the tsunami and we returned with a car full of foodstuff and other supplies.
Over the following weeks I still tried to write — and failed. Amid all these journalists coming here and producing fantastic coverage, I was confused. I would get a good idea, then it would vanish when I sat in front of the computer.
In each attempted coverage I met refugees who would retell the same tales all over again, the loss of family and property. And I would cry along with the retelling of dozens, and eventually perhaps hundreds, of such stories.
It may sound ridiculous, but I was a victim too. On the sixth day after the tragedy, I managed to write my first story, and it was done with great difficulty. The stories that followed also required intense concentration, so I only contributed a few published stories in the months immediately after the disaster, while journalists from outside the province were writing and filing dozens of stories.
In all honesty, I was in shock and grieving. I was depressed and envious of other reporters who could continue to work.
On the first day, a friend was able to manage some coverage only after she had found her father; I could only imagine how she really felt then.
I began to think I was far from a good, professional journalist.
It was the most difficult period in my career, even harder than the moment the waves destroyed major parts of this province, Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam — the name rings rather oddly now; it means the land of peace and prosperity.
I was virtually inactive for two months.
Friends and colleagues from Jakarta reminded me how silly I was being.
“”This is the big chance we’ve been waiting for us as journalists. Why don’t you use it?””
I knew this, but it wasn’t that easy.
Treatment for this mental state came through lots of encouragement from all these friends. But the main therapeutic course was to continue to visit the shelters and to hear the survivors’ stories — but this time, mustering up enough self-control and focus to enable myself to maintain an objective distance.
I realize that I must keep writing and reporting on the conditions in Aceh. It is all the more important because this province might be forgotten in light of the many disasters occurring elsewhere, while hundreds of thousands live in distress still.
I must also continue to write because there’s a small possibility that it’s the only reason God spared my life.
Nani began her career as a journalist in 2000 with the Banda Aceh-basedSerambi daily; she is now the Aceh correspondent for The Jakarta Post.