Child Survivors Tell Their Story: Why Did So Many Women Die During the Natural Disaster in Aceh?

*AUTHOR BIO

Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where the 2004 tsunami struck.  Many women searched for loved ones rather than evacuate.   ©Kompas/Hendra A. Setyawan/WMOArto Marttinen/Wikimedia
Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where the 2004 tsunami struck. Many women searched for loved ones rather than evacuate. ©Kompas/Hendra A. Setyawan/WMOArto Marttinen/Wikimedia

When the 2004 Aceh tsunami struck, I was in Montreal, Canada, having just collected my master's degree and was preparing to return to Jakarta, Indonesia. It was a Saturday night on Christmas Eve, and some Indonesian friends were hanging out with my sister and me, in our one-bedroom apartment. We were stunned as we watched the news of the Aceh tsunami, and saw the death toll continue to rise. We were shocked and saddened by the number of deaths. We canceled our previous plans to enjoy ourselves by going shopping on Boxing Day, December 26th, and instead gathered with around thirty other Indonesian students to discuss how we, as Indonesian students in Montreal, could help and respond to this tragic news. We started making hand-sewn four-petal black poppies right away, out of black felt stuffed with wadding and sewn in white thread. We planned on making 200 poppies and setting up a table on the McGill campus to sell the poppies. We hoped to raise $1,000 for the survivors as an emergency fund. We distributed 200 poppies and continued to make them, involving Indonesian students and students from other countries, members of other student bodies, faith-based groups, and community organizations. People were seemingly moved by the sheer magnitude of the disaster and the number of fatalities. In the end, approximately 5,000 poppies were made, as well as a few bake sales that were conducted on campus and two charity night performances, which resulted in the Indonesian students association collecting a total of CA$ 97,500, which was then distributed through a legal charity group.

The study's primary focus was on child survivors' accounts of surviving the tsunami. I followed up on this information by uncovering how women reacted when the tsunami struck to determine why so many women died in the Aceh tsunami.

I returned home in February 2005 and began working in Jakarta. The Aceh news was still being widely circulated both in print and on television. I saw a job posting for a mental health promoter in an international humanitarian organization in West Aceh. I was accepted, quit my previous job in Jakarta, and began working with children and women in Meulaboh, West Aceh, in relocation camps and temporary barracks. As a promoter, I organized a puppet show to educate people about post-traumatic syndrome symptoms and promoted the availability of our mental health team that was available to talk.


Their vulnerability and resilience stories in the face of a major disaster compelled me to return to Aceh in 2018 to research their experiences further. I interviewed child survivors in the Banda Aceh and Aceh Jaya districts for this research, which was funded by a research grant from UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta, a public university in Jakarta where I have now been a faculty member for ten years. The study's primary focus was on child survivors' accounts of surviving the tsunami, how they experienced the tsunami, how they coped with the aftermath, and their current situation. While sharing their stories, these twenty-seven child survivors discussed their lives without their mothers, the last time they saw their mothers, and how many of their siblings had survived. They reported that more women and children were killed in the tsunami, with eight child survivors left without any female nuclear family members. I followed up on this information by uncovering how women reacted when the tsunami struck to determine why so many women died in the Aceh tsunami. As this study was part of a larger study on children, I only included the child survivors as research participants who were between the ages of six and twelve at the time of the tsunami.


This investigation was documented in a paper that was published in a disaster risk reduction journal. The writing began last year while I was a Fulbright visiting scholar at the University of South Florida's School of Public Affairs. I collaborated with Dr. Robin Ersing to finalize the paper. According to the child survivors' insights and observations, more women died in the Aceh tsunami in 2004 for several reasons. First, the women waited for their husbands. Waiting for their husbands was not limited to the Aceh tsunami; in other disasters worldwide, such as the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone and the Australian bushfires, some women stayed at home waiting for their husbands, who have decision-making power at home. This study discovered that the reasons these women stayed were not because they should wait for their husbands to tell them what to do, but rather because it is a cultural practice that a woman must abide by; to honor her husband, and leaving the house is considered as demeaning. Waiting for their husbands in an emergency, for whatever reason, could endanger women, so women must therefore learn to prioritize their safety and prevent becoming entwined in socio-cultural constructs that are harmful to women.

Many women searched for loved ones rather than evacuate.   ©Kompas/Hendra A. Setyawan/WMO
Many women searched for loved ones rather than evacuate. ©Kompas/Hendra A. Setyawan/WMO

The second reason many women died in the Aceh tsunami was that women were more likely than men to rescue family members in a disaster. According to research on the Australian bushfire, hurricane Andrew, and the Aceh tsunami, this type of disaster response is the most common reason women often do not survive a disaster. Women are vulnerable, but they can also act as a catalyst to remove any life-saving treatment barriers. They exhibited compassion and strength by searching for loved ones before rescuing themselves. They also displayed strength and bravery by attempting to save their family members. As a result, to reduce the number of people who die as a result of a natural disaster, each family should have a disaster family plan that outlines what to do and where to go in the event of a disaster. They should flee to save their lives and meet in the agreed-upon location, where possible, as part of a rescue plan.


The data also revealed some women seem to have been reluctant to disperse and wanted to stay to pray. Many religious adherents pursue the purpose of life in religion and then use religion as their principal foundation for life, and their beliefs and practices guide them through understanding problems and finding solutions. Acehnese people are known to be devout Muslims. As a result, Islam is regarded as more than what is commonly referred to as a religion; it is a lifestyle based on a well-developed conceptual and epistemological worldview. The same case was found in personal factors that impacted some African Americans in their decision not to evacuate New Orleans, Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina came ashore. They had unwavering faith in Christ, and they believed that God would not let them perish in the hurricane. As was the case in Aceh, they chose to remain at home and pray. Disaster risk reduction and intervention plans should better involve faith as a factor in communities; everyone should be prepared and know when to evacuate.

The second reason many women died in the Aceh tsunami was that women were more likely than men to rescue family members in a disaster. According to research on the Australian bushfire, hurricane Andrew, and the Aceh tsunami, this type of disaster response is the most common reason women often do not survive a disaster.

According to child survivors, many women died in the Aceh tsunami because their female family members were unable to survive due to physical constraints that hindered their escape from the water, while they were also unaware of the very real danger they were facing and lacked the knowledge needed to protect themselves in the event of a disaster. Clothing also hampered women's movement, according to some research conducted in South Asian countries, but the child survivors in this study did not mention this as a factor.


This research could not be generalized; the findings are very specific for explaining the unique group of participants involved, who are the same age group, share the same Muslim faith, and are, of course, in the cultural context of Aceh. Also, because the event occurred fourteen years after the disaster and they were very young at the time, the child survivors may distort or add to their stories. The child survivors were visibly moved as they told their stories. The majority of them stated that they had never told anyone about their experiences and indeed some did not have the confidence needed to share their experiences. Six female participants did not show up for the scheduled interview, which led to a gender imbalance of eighteen males and nine females. Despite these limitations, the data collected is still useful because it provides an impressive insight into children's lives during the Aceh disasters, which has rarely been studied previously. As many of the children were at or near home on that fateful Sunday, these children were often unavoidably the last person to see their mothers and other family members alive.

Indonesian child survivor.   ©Tyler J. Clements, PH3
Indonesian child survivor. ©Tyler J. Clements, PH3

Furthermore, they were still very young and would have relied heavily on their mother during this period. As a result, the tsunami disaster left these children with a profound feeling of loss and despair. We are able to gain a better understanding of what kind of support these children require in this situation and how to help them deal with grief and pain after a disaster by researching their thoughts and feelings. This research did indeed focus on the Muslim community, but it is undeniable that many other communities, both in Indonesia and internationally, also face high levels of disaster exposure, making this research comparable to others.


Unexpected findings include how the participants perceived the interview to be beneficial in terms of allowing them to reflect upon and visualize their past. They used to believe that if they did not talk about the tragedy, they would be able to move on more quickly. They were, however, eager to share their experiences and claimed to have felt better as a result. When one of the female participants sobbed, the researcher asked her to take a break and return later, but the participant insisted on continuing to speak. The researchers also discovered some guilty feelings in some of the survivors because they were able to survive, but their loved ones had not. A female participant stated that she asked her mother to run away with her, and yet her mother had stayed and told her to run away instead. She felt guilty for not being able to persuade her mother to run away and continues to think about what might have happened if she had remained with her mother. One male participant was haunted by memories of holding his mother by her hair as he clung to a floating log, he couldn’t keep hold of her and he remembers that moment and continues to feel guilt for not being able to rescue her. Many survivors did however accept that what happened was God's will and attempted to embrace it, believing that those who died in disasters were martyrs, and they mostly coped by having a positive promise that they would meet their loved ones in heaven.

 

Full report: Rahiem, M.D.H., & Rahim, H., & Ersing, R. (2021). Why did so many women die in the 2004 Aceh Tsunami? Child survivor accounts of the disaster. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 55, 102069.

 

*Dr. Maila Rahiem is a faculty member at the Faculty of Education and a director of Centre of Excellence — Educating for the Future, UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta, Indonesia.


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