Aceh : Can They Find Peace? by Tan Li-Anne
eace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.
The XIVth Dalai Lama
These are the faces of Aceh that remain forged in my memory:
Then there was a young girl who could not have been more than 15 years old. She was happy to be in my company whenever she saw me at her refugee camp in Medan. She would hug me, hold my hand and call me ‘kak’ or sister. She would have smiles on her face but her eyes seemed to tell a different story. She had been orphaned by the tsunami and was uncertain about her future. The day before I returned to Singapore, she passed me a crumpled note, written on a torn exercise book paper. My Indonesian was too basic to understand it, so I passed it to my Indonesian colleague Henry. But he, uncharacteristically, refused to speak about the note or translate. It was when we left camp that he revealed the contents. In it, she had said, “My life is miserable. I am so young but I do not know what will become of me. Please take me home with you.”
Like millions round the world, when the tsunami wreaked its devastation on 26 December 2004, the first instinct, was to ask, “What can I do to help?” But the scale of the disaster was so great that sending money didn’t seem adequate. Rather than go wearing my journalists hat, I decided that my training as a therapist in Brain Gym and Energy Psychology would be more useful in supporting survivors as they experienced trauma. With an Indonesian colleague, Henry Remanlay, also a therapist, we made three trips each from January to April 2005 to work in refugee camps in Medan and Banda Aceh.
Now, a year has passed since the tsunami. The cameras, crews, medical teams and reporters trained on Aceh and its people have all but gone, trained on other more pressing disasters. However there is still much to threaten the sense of peace of the Acehnese. Not surprising, since as many 504,000 people remain homeless and displaced according to the Indonesian Bureau of Statistics. Most have lost their means of earning their livelihoods, whether it is farmland, fishing boats, a sewing machine, food stalls or even the jobs they used to hold. Many cannot hope to rebuild their lives because they have no income. Many are still living in tents or living in either, government or relief agency built accommodation far away from places where they might earn a living. To complicate matters, all land titles were lost in the waters, so there is no guarantee of ownership of land for the homeless.
A recent USAID survey of more than 2000 Aceh refugees in 12 districts also found that while 90% were provided for in terms of food and 47% in medical services, only 4% received help to regain their livelihoods. More than half believed establishing a stable source of income or receiving tolls or training to start their livelihoods was the top priority
On top of that, there are still thousands that continue to experience trauma from the tsunami, reports an Indonesian contact, a psychology professor who has accompanied us on some of our camp visits. Having met hundreds of Acehnese, I know that many relive moments of the tsunami over and again, with flashbacks of the lost of loved ones and what they might have done differently to save a spouse or child.
Despite this, many of the Acehnese we met held their pain firmly behind their smiles. They would laugh and joke. They tried to live life as normally as possible, whether they were sleeping communally in halls with 30 or 50 others in Medan; or living in tents over dirt clearings in Banda Aceh; or tiny housing units built in long stretches across the countryside also in Banda Aceh.
Living with Trauma
In the face of their experiences we were happy to be able to offer some respite from their anguish through the self-help emotional stress release tools that we taught. In some of the more serious cases, that required more specialised work, we offered one-on-one sessions.
Often trauma would also show itself up in different conditions such as body pain, headaches, migraines and blackouts. Some survivors had trouble relating their experiences of the tsunami their present feelings of discomfort, sleeplessness or mood swings.
For instance at a camp, Posko Metal, in Medan, a woman in her 40s would complain of headaches and blackouts every day even though it was four months after the tsunami. She begged me for drugs to relief the pain. Since there were no medical facilities, and I was not qualified to prescribed drugs, I offered her whatever assistance I could. When I conducted an assessment, I found that her problem had emotional origins and facilitated this rather skeptical woman through some techniques of emotional release. After hour and hour, her pain and her blackouts ceased, even though she had suffered them for three months. It was then that she told me that she would get blackouts whenever she thought about her dead son.
In another camp called Posko Imam Bonjol, I met Imros a tailor in her late 20s. Even though I had met her on two trips and we had shared meals and I had spent evenings with her working on her patchwork quilt, I did not know she was afraid of heights till the end of my second trip. She suffered from many phobias, since she was carried away by waves more than two stories high. She could not climb on anything less than a foot off the ground. Getting on stools and ladders brought up too much fear, Even standing on higher ground could provoke anxiety. She became afraid of the dark and would start at the minutest noises. She would also imagine that ghosts were about. After 45 minutes of working with her, her face looked visibly brighter and more relaxed. She could even climb up to the highest step of a shaky ladder unaided also became less of a problem.
One of the most serious cases we had worked on was with a girl called Kiki. And it took three therapists to work with her before she began her road to recovery. Unfortunately, there are many like her, in psychiatric care or in mental institutions, say relief workers with Aceh Sepekat a local non-governmental organisation.
Kiki looked to be about 19 to 23 years old and was living out her hallucinations. Even a month after the tsunami, she still had lifelike episodes where she still believed that she was caught in the water unable to reach out to anyone. On occasion she would call out for help and react as if there was no one there to help here. And she still saw everyone in her village being washed away as if it was happening in that instant. We worked three long hours with her, supporting her to experiencing her pain from the past and to also return her to the present which seemed just as traumatizing. This was because everyone she had known and loved was lost. After three hours of slowly coaxing her back to the future with various techniques, and clearing the trauma from her past, her eyes lost their terrified look. She could finally stay in touch with the present time. When we visited another day she did not slip back into the past again. Thankfully by the end of the week relief workers had found and reunited her with a relative and she was preparing to leave and return to Aceh.
On our trips, we managed to teach and work with more than 200 people, including survivors, relief workers, psychologists, school teachers, children and midwifery students, so that that could support themselves using some of the simpler self help trauma relief techniques and share it with others. But as much as we got done it was painful to feel the limitation of our energies, resources and abilities—especially when that there were always more people in pain. And even though I knew that the trips would make a powerful impression and take its toll on me, I came home from my first trip becoming as numb as the people I saw. I had seen and felt too much pain—my mind on the faces I had seen and ears attuned to every fresh report of earthquakes, unable to sleep, planning my next trip. It was through the kindness and healing of my fellow therapists in Singapore that I found comfort and restoration. With their care, I was ready to make fresh trips and able to lend my strength and ability to others.
I do not know how long it will take before, peace returns to the hearts of the thousands of Acehnese still facing the grind of life and their demons from the tsunami. But I shall be ready again to make my next trip in February 2006.
Trauma : Losing Peace
Although gargantuan disaster like the tsunami can trigger stress from trauma, we who live in Singapore are not immune to trauma. It can occur in the home if we face physical and emotional abuse, if we witness violence repeatedly on the news, meet with an accident or see our loved ones in danger.
How would you know if you are experiencing trauma? These are the signs according to the American Psychological Society:
changes in appetite.
anxiety and fear, especially when faced with similar events or situations
becoming easily startled or hyper alert.
depression, sadness or low energy
memory problems including difficulty in remembering aspects of the trauma.
Feeling “scattered” and unable to focus on work or daily activities.
difficulty in decision-making
irritability, agitation, or anger and resentfulness.
emotional numbness, withdrawl, disconnection or feeling different from others.
Spontaneously crying, feeling a sense of despair and hopelessness.
Feeling extremely protective of, or fearful for, the safety of loved ones.
Inability to face certain aspects of the trauma, and avoiding activities, places, or even people that remind you of the event.
Should a person experience these symptoms for more than a month, they may need professional help to heal from this trauma. Some sources of trauma include:
The environmental impact of the Tsunami has been enormous, and the wrecked landscape is a constant reminder of the destruction that the tidal wave brought into the lives of many.
The tsunami has caused the destruction of eco-systems and natural resources. Tidal waves in some areas went as far as three kilometres inland, damaging agricultural land vital to the livelihood of many.
The economic cost to the environment has been placed at about $675 million reports the United Nations Environment Programme.
What’s more, the loss of forests, mangroves and coral reefs leave people in Sumatra vulnerable to more of such disasters since these act as natural buffers.
“Among critical coastal habitats in Aceh and north Sumatra, 25,000 hectares (ha) of mangroves, 30 per cent of 97,250 ha of previously existing coral reefs, and 20 per cent of 600 ha of seagrass beds have been damaged according to the new report. The economic loss is valued at $118.2 million, $332.4 million and $2.3 million, respectively,” explains the UNEP press release dated 25 Jan 05.
As a result of infiltration of saline water, sediment and sludge, it is estimated that 7.5 kilometres of river mouth will need rehabilitation. Hundreds of wells in the rural area also need to be cleaned up.
Along the coastal strip, it is estimated that 48,925 ha of forest area was compromised, and it is estimated that 30 per cent of this area has been lost. In addition, large areas — approximately 300 kilometres — of coastal land area have been degraded or lost adds the UNEP.