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Indonesia tsunami: "Responding to a disaster in my own country took its toll"
When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, doctor Rangi W. Sudrajat joined the MSF emergency response team dispatched to reach communities cut off by the disaster.
It was 7 October, nine days after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake followed by a six-meter high tsunami struck and paralysed Central Sulawesi.
“The death toll has risen to 1,900 and climbing,” the TV blared at Makassar airport, just before I was to board the plane board going to Palu City.
And indeed, when I arrived at the Palu City airport, the TV report seemed to be an omen of what I found.
"Without electricity and with a desperate plea for help, a family had put up a sign asking for medical care. They spent dreadful nights waiting for anyone who could help and evacuate their badly injured family members."
The airport itself was busy, military aircraft were parked surrounding the recently fixed runway, and the now infamous collapsed air traffic control tower immediately met my gaze, standing in ruins.
Inside the airport there were lots of people waiting, trying to catch a plane to get out of the city. I saw a boy with a huge bandage on his head sleeping on his mother’s lap.
Silently, I whispered “safe journey” - a prayer for the little boy.
Welcome to Palu
“Welcome to Palu,” the MSF administrative officer told us, the newcomers.
We were a team of three – me, a medical doctor; a nurse; and a water and sanitation logistician, known as a watsan-log.
He looked tired, I thought of the admin officer. I knew the members of the assessment team (composed of a project coordinator, medical doctor, logistician, and administrative officer) have been here since 2 October, living inside tents in a hotel car park.
“It’s not so bad anymore, we have electricity and water now. It was hard during the first few days,” the team told me when I asked.
“Food is scarce but it’s not too bad, as long as you don’t ask for fried chicken or pizza, we’ll be fine,” the admin officer grinned.
Cut off from the outside world
The next day, me, the nurse, and the watsan-log joined a mobile clinic, travelling to a puskesmas (a community health centre) in the disaster-hit town of Baluase in Sigi - one of the three provinces that were damaged by the triple disaster of earthquake-tsunami-liquefaction.
“The trip is not usually this long,” doctor Krishna, the head of the puskesmas, told us.
“It’s due to the roads that have been damaged and the bridges that collapsed, that is why we need to take a different route. Before, it only took 45 minutes from Palu to Sigi. Now, the trip takes two hours.”
From the car’s small windows, I could see tall grasses surrounding us and the newly-created dirt road.
“The military cut down the fields and poured sand to create this road. Before this, Sigi was completely cut off from the outside world,” Dr Krishna’s husband, who was driving the car, explained to us.
I soon found this to be true, to my despair.
Without electricity and with a desperate plea for help, a family had put up a sign asking for medical care. They spent dreadful nights waiting for anyone who could help and evacuate their badly injured family members.
“I was evacuated around five days after the earthquake. I was put on a pick-up truck and they brought me to Palu,” said a mother with a broken and dislocated leg.
“I’m fine now, but I lost my seven-year-old boy in the ruins, he was found dead.”
Ruins and devastation were found everywhere you looked in Sigi. The ground had split open, houses crashed down, and buildings were torn in pieces.
"I’ve worked in emergencies with MSF before, but treating people who are victims of a large-scale natural disaster that happened in your home country is entirely different and heartbreaking."
From afar, it looked like nothing happened to the building that used to be the Puskesmas Baluase, but if you came closer, it was obvious that this centre for the district health service, providing treatment for more than 15,000 people, was badly damaged.
However, MSF already had an action plan in place to restore health services to the area. And, by 15 October, the foundation for a temporary puskesmas was set in the ground by the MSF team.
While the logistics and watsan team were working hard to rebuild the health centre, my medical team, supported by puskesmas staff, started our daily mobile clinic activities in all the 13 villages of the district.
The personal impact
Sometimes, it could get really tough. I’ve worked in emergencies with MSF before, but treating people who are victims of a large-scale natural disaster that happened in your home country is entirely different and heartbreaking. It definitely left a personal impact on me.
When this happened, I did what I usually do in my other assignments, I spent time playing with my favourite people - the children.
At the time of writing, MSF has finished the construction of the temporary puskesmas in Baluase, reviving its most important function as the centre of the district’s health service.
MSF has also installed water tanks and latrines in several camps for displaced people in Sigi province.
Working alongside the District Health Office, MSF is continuing to restore several other puskesmas centres in the Palu and Donggala areas, as well as providing medical and psychosocial support.
It will take time for the citizens of Palu-Donggala-Sigi to be able to fully function as they did before. However, the most important thing I learned during my stay with the communities is the importance of inner strength and resilience.
They taught me that the ones left behind should grab onto life and live it to the fullest. It’s okay to cry from time to time, but it’s more important to smile and be happy.
It’s almost an obligation to do just that, in exchange for the love that was given by those who were taken too soon by the triple disaster.
When the grounds split open and everything
came crashing down
When our favourite ocean washed your roofs
and took your hands
I hope you know I will live bravely for the sake
of the love you gave me once:
“I hope you live the life you’re proud of and
I hope you will always be kind.”
We’ll always be each other’s home sweet home,
I’ll see you in time.
RWS, Palu - 20 October 2018