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I Remember Aceh
I Remember Aceh
The scorching sun shone down on a makeshift clinic, a small hut where I sat on the rough wooden floor. The sweat poured down my flushed face as the humidity mercilessly surrounded me like a bubble from which I could not escape. I listened intently to each ailing person who had either suffered from the tsunami months before and had not yet gotten treatment, or who had minor complaints such as rashes or sores. I came to help these people whose lives were completely shattered.
I was at the northern tip of Sumatra with my mother, in Banda Aceh which had suffered tremendous loss after the gigantic tsunami four months before. Literally everything was in ruins, the only thing left of previous homes were their foundations. All that remained standing were the palm trees which had been able to withstand the powerful waves. Cows and dogs wandered randomly along the side of the roads. They looked like skeletons, barely able to walk because they were weak with hunger.
While driving to the next clinic, I could see small clusters of tents where families were forced to live, because there were not enough barracks built yet to shelter everyone. Some families chose to place their tent where their previous home’s foundation had been, in order to claim it and make sure that no one seized it. I could only imagine the amount of privacy one would receive if living in these conditions. Hygiene was obviously another problem. There was a shortage of water available and it was therefore difficult to stay clean. It made me feel so thankful for what I had at home, where the tsunami had not damaged anything.
We passed several mass graves and I felt as if I wanted to cry. I thought about the sorrow and pain that individuals were feeling, knowing that their friends and family were buried in graves like this. At the entrance of these sites, the government erected an Indonesian flag and several wooden placards which told how many people were buried there and reminded the Acehnese people to have hope. I was amazed how these victims tried to continue their lives as best they could despite this horrendous tragedy.
Upon arrival the group of nurses, doctors, and translators piled out of the car and began to set up their mobile clinic. While my mother helped set up the pharmacy, I assisted the others in laying out floor mats for the patients. Eventually the clinic “staff” were ready to invite the sick and wounded to come to the clinic for help. Many people were complaining about small, infected cuts which had not been properly treated since the tsunami. Others were covered with rashes, while some tried to control the pain caused by serious wounds.
I sat down beside one of the American nurses who could not speak Indonesian. I translated for her as each person came to our mat. An old woman hobbled towards us and cautiously sat down.
“How can we help you today?” I asked the woman
“I was frying some food in a large frying pan full of boiling oil and I accidentally knocked it over. The oil spilled and burned part of my leg and foot.” The woman described the incident with such anguish on her face that I could almost feel the pain that she was experiencing.
A filthy cloth was wrapped around her foot and I asked, “Could you please remove the cloth?” She slowly unwrapped it and I could see that most of her foot was black, and yellow pus was oozing out of the burned area. I asked the old woman several other questions before sending her to the mat beside us where the nurse cleaned and bandaged her wound.
I had to take a break. I felt sick and wanted to vomit. I walked over to where my water bottle was and took a long drink. I wiped the sweat off my face, took a few deep breaths, and then returned to the mat.
The next day our team prepared another clinic in a different area.
“How can we help you?” I asked a man who had been hurled through the tsunami waves.
“I am having pain in my stomach and I am afraid that I swallowed rocks while being tossed through the waves.” I tried to imagine how large the waves must have been; a man being flung helplessly around through huge waves like a child tossing a rag doll.
I described to the nurse what the man had told me and the nurse replied, “Even if you had swallowed rocks, your body is capable of crushing them. We will give you medicine for the pain, and hopefully you will be better soon.” Although I felt incredulous about this, I told him what she had said and he moved on to the mat beside us.
The medical team travelled back to the local clinic. That evening, a woman about to give birth to twins came in. When she began having contractions, I was called in to translate for an American midwife and several Indonesian nurses. The woman began sweating furiously so I wiped her forehead with a damp cloth and fanned her with a piece of cardboard. It seemed like an eternity before we could see the first baby.
“Tell her to push,” one of the American nurses told me.
“Push, push!” I yelled in Indonesian.
The woman’s face turned crimson as she pushed with all of her strength. It was obvious that she was tired, but she persistently focused all of her strength on the delivery of the child.
Finally, the first baby was born. The nurses and midwives looked relieved and pleased, but knew that their job wasn’t finished. About nine laborious minutes later, the second baby’s foot appeared. He seemed to be more difficult to get out. His head and one arm remained trapped, and the American midwife was unable to pull him out because his arm was stuck behind his head.
“If he doesn’t come out soon, I’ll have to break his arm!” the midwife shouted. I was scared, caught up in the excitement. Thoughts were racing through my head quicker than I had time to consider them. What if the baby wasn’t born alive? What if the mother had complications and died? Each idea that I had became more dramatic and more believable. I couldn’t help thinking about them.
A few more minutes passed and no progress was made. The midwife positioned herself on the table and carefully yanked the child out, breaking his arm.
After both babies were cleaned and tightly wrapped in soft blankets, we saw that the second boy’s face was bruised from his difficult birth. I thought that after they were both born, everything was finished; however, I was mistaken. I wanted the Indonesian woman to be as comfortable as possible, so I continued fanning her. I watched the midwife pull the placentas out while blood gushed out all over the table. I felt sick, but controlled myself because I didn’t want the woman to feel badly. She lost quite a bit of blood and had to get stitches, so the doctors decided to keep her over night. The next day she was able to leave. To me, these babies were a symbol of hope. Born miles away from their home, which was probably not more than a tent or part of a barrack, these precious infants represented life after hundreds of thousands of people had died. Down in the depths of my mind, I knew that I would never forget that incredible experience!
After another day of translating for the nurses at the mobile clinics, it was time to go home. Following a long grueling trip, my mother and I arrived at our house. We were glad to be reunited with family, but unfortunately, our water system was not functioning properly so we were not able to take showers.
I began complaining, “I have been traveling all day, I am hot and tired, and the water isn’t working!” I stormed up to my room and sat down on my bed. Why hadn’t anyone made sure that the water was working by the time that I arrived home? After thinking through my frustration, I remembered the Acehnese people who literally had nothing. I was complaining about not being able to shower while they often had difficulty gathering water to drink, let alone finding a private place to bathe. I felt guilt leap into my heart and suddenly I stood up and went downstairs where my family was and apologized for getting upset. After that, when I took things for granted and things didn’t happen the way I wanted them to, I remembered Aceh and how that trip and the people there had changed my life.
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