FEBRUARY 9th, 2005- 9:30 PM

TERROR. HORROR. FEAR. It felt tike a riot; people running around, screaming. The road was streaming with motorists, dazzling everyone with their headlamps and blaring their horns. It was a narrow, village street, and they were speeding, willing to risk pedestrian roadkill.

So much noise. Everyone was screaming. I couldn’t make out a word that was being said. My Indonesian is really bad, let alone my Malay, so I was completely lost in translation. I kept asking my teacher, “What happened? What’s going on?”

It took a while before he answered. He had his own thoughts to deal with, and he too was trying to piece everything together. Only after persistent pestering did he finally yield to my inquisition.

Air naik! Air naik!”

That’s what they were afraid of. That’s what the women were screaming.

“The water is rising! The water is rising!”

Another tsunami was coming. That’s the reason behind the panic. People were rushing as fast as they could inland, trying to get as far away from the sea as possible.

I looked up, expecting to see an immense wall of water, making its way at blinding speeds. Instead, the night sky greeted me, die stars twinkling as tiiough nothing remarkable was happening.

I should have been relieved, but I knew this to be only a short respite. The water could come at any time, without warning. No relief, but rather fear pierced my core. That’s when the pain at the bottom of my heart kicked in, for comprehension had dawned:

I was going to the in a matter of moments.


My student volunteer team and I were sitting down, happily enjoying our last dinner in Acheh. Our school had sponsored our trip, the “International Islamic School’s Acheh Relief Mission (IIS ARM),” and we had come down from Malaysia with the intention of helping tiiose in need. Much to our disappointment, we were due to leave the next morning, and we were talking about how great the past five days had been, about how great the whole experience was. Sharing our disappointment of not being able to go to Meulaboh.

Meulaboh is one of the hardest hit regions in Indonesia. It was the closest city to the epicenter of the earthquake, which had registered as a 9.0 on the Richter scale. It received the full impact of the tremors, being only 240 km away. It was also the first area to be hit by the tsunami, although the wave had not yet gathered much mometum. In comparison to Banda Acheh, tiiough, which is much farther down on the coast, the town was hit by the tsunami’s destructive peak. Population before was 92,000. After the water came, only 4,000 people were left.

It would have been nice to go. Surely, the people over there needed help, able-bodied volunteers who would ease their burden.

Suddenly, with no preamble, the whole building started swaying back and forth, as if the pillars had been replaced with Jell-O.

It’s a strange feeling to be in an earthquake. We ran to the street and the ground itself shook.

It’s an absurd idea, the earth trembling. It’s impossible. How does such a large piece of rock shudder? I had always tiiought of the Earth as a permanent foundation. Something we could always rely on.

Of course, I knew what an earthquake was. I was familiar with the theory and the whats and the hows and die whys. But experiencing one for myself completely caught me off guard. The very roots of die Earth were in upheaval. All we could do is tremble with fear.

“When the Earth is shaken to its (utmost) convulsion, and the Earth throws up its Burdens (from within), and man cries (distressed); “What is the matter with it?”

– Qur’an, Sura al-Zalzalah 99:1-3

Allah’s power is truly absolute. To shake something so massive. I couldn’t help but feel awed and humbled at this show of His power. If I was unnerved by this small gesture, how would I feel on the Day of Judgment?

After the tremors stopped, we returned to our dinner, most of us excited after surviving an earthquake. It was a first for many of us, and we couldn’t help but chatter at our table.

We had no idea that our laughter would be interrupted once more, but this time by something much more dire.

9:35 PM

“I testify that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is his Messenger.”

My shahada. God knows how many times I said it that night; over and over again. I was going to the soon, and I wanted to make sure that I died a Muslim.

I started praying, too. Supplicating to God, asking him to keep my loved ones safe. To help my family with their grief, to help them get along without me. And I think I could have prayed for my safety, but I can’t be sure. Time was a blur.

“When trouble toucheth a man, he crieth unto Us (in all postures) – lying down on his side, or sitting, or standing. But when We have solved his trouble, hepasseth on his way as if he had never cried to Us for a trouble that touched him! Thus do the deeds of transgressors seem fair in their eyes!”

(Qur’an, Surah Yunus 10:12)

The truth in such a statement It must be human nature; we only think of God when we are in perilous need of His help. And I was surely in need of His help, praying for whatever I could think of, saying whatever words that came to my mouth.

But even as I write, a cup of soya milk in my left hand and assorted peanuts in my right, do I still remember my Lord and Creator? Is my heart still aware of His presence? Only in the throes of death did I truly call for my Lord’s mercy. But now that I’m out of harm’s way, I no longer feel the same necessity or compulsion.

I remember waiting for the water to come. I had given up hope, and was expecting the water to come crashing down on my head at any moment It was not my demise that terrified me. My death was inevitable, and I had already accepted that What I was afraid of was what follows after death, and the Judgment that awaited me. Had I done enough good in life? Was I prepared to meet my Creator?

My fear, however, was nothing when compared to that of the Indonesians. These people had lived through one tsunami, and they knew first hand the devastation that it could bring. Memory made this second wave so much worse.

I saw this little girl, around five years old. She was distraught, on the verge of tears. Sitting quietly, next to her mother, her eyes betrayed her emotions. Wide with fear, the pupils flitting about like a cornered meerkat We were trying to comfort her, saying, uJangan takut, adik. Jangan takut.”

Don’t be afraid. What else could we tell her? She was probably yanked from her home, maybe while she was watching television. Her father is racing down the street, the mother is crying, and so much noise. She doesn’t know what’s going on; her mother tries to explain but she herself is much too terrified to do any form of comforting. Completely lost.

My little sister Maryam is about her age, and it would break me if I ever saw her in the same state as this Indonesian girl.

They say that, when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. No such thing happened to me. Normally, on any other day, I would have died of boredom watching myself live out my life.

But now? I beg to differ.

FEBRUARY 5th, 2005

Our first day in Indonesia was devoted wholly to travelling. An 11-hour bus ride from Medan to Acheh is no joke; all our boyish enthusiasm was let out within the confines of a crowded blue van. It would have been convenient to fly straight to Acheh, but the scenic route was well worth the pain we suffered. It served as an introduction to what we were to see for the duration of our relief mission. We should be grateful; it would have crushed us if we had been transported straight to the tsunami zone. Destruction is not something that we were used to.

FEBRUARY 6th, 2005

We went “sight-seeing” today around Banda Acheh. Saw the devastation wrought by the tsunami. They say that seeing is believing. What is shown on television is nothing compared to what we saw for ourselves.

Never mind the fallen trees. The flattened houses. Villages, towns, half a city. The land itself was scarred. Mountains had been cleft; landslides must have buried thousands of people. So much has been said about the destruction. Newspapers covered it TV aired it People talked about it.

We heard a lot of survivor stories today. My favorite is of a rich man who owned a 3-story house. When the water came, a mob of people gathered at his front door, begging that the owner let them in, to give them shelter. The man refused, saying, “There is no room! There is no room!”

He was lying. There was plenty of space in his home, and yet he denied them sanctuary.

The crowd left for the adjacent house, where they found shelter. Seconds afterwards, the 3story house collapsed. Fortunately, the horde was spared. All those in the house died, save one who was badly injured. The owner was among those who died.

I’m a cynical person. I thought to myself, ” See, that’s what happens when you’re greedy. He got what he deserved.” My friends told me that they thought the same thing.

While we were brooding with such derisive thoughts, the old lady continued with her story. When the people saw that house crumble they said to themselves, “Alhamdu lillah. That man must have been divinely inspired. He must have known that his house was going to break down, and he warned us away. Allah has saved us from such a calamity!”

I didn’t understand at first Perhaps I confused the little Indonesian that I knew. The woman was so forgiving, which is a very rare quality these days. There wasn’t a hint of sarcasm in her voice. The victims had chosen to think only good of the man who shunned them.

There is a tradition about giving your Muslim brother the benefit of the doubt Something about finding 70 excuses for you brother if he has done anything wrong. In this case, these people did not need to give 70 excuses. One was enough to wipe out any suspicion from their heart, to hide any of his faults.

Beautiful attitude, from beautiful people. Giving the man the benefit of the doubt looking at him in a positive light. Even with their homes destroyed, these people were still optimistic.

If only there were more people who thought like this. The world could do with less suspicion, less contempt and more heart More trust Husn al-Dhann.

FEBRUARY 8th, 2005

We went out with the Search and Rescue (SAR) team today. The whole day was devoted to collecting dead bodies so that they can have a proper burial.

It’s not good, I was told, to call a dead body disgusting. There is a certain adab that should be followed with respect to the dead, and we made sure to follow it I, for one, didn’t want to be seen as disrespectful. Don’t laugh. Be considerate when handling the body. Try to bring it to the grave as quickly as possible. And don’t call it disgusting.

But I don’t know how else I could describe it I had never seen a decomposed human body before, let alone one that has been rotting for forty days submerged in water. Although my eyes will not be as clear in my old age, and my memory will grow dim over the years, my nose will not forget The smell of decaying flesh gets into you, down to your gut Hours later, even after we showered and cleaned ourselves, the smell still gets to you. You can be eating, and it will choose that particular moment to remind you of rotten meat.

I should be grateful. The facial features were indistinguishable, making every body similar to the rest. From what I hear, it would have been worse if they were still recognizable human beings. It would have been more painful. The experience would have been much more personal, and their expressions of anguish would have been imprinted on my mind.

Instead, what we were handling was just meat. The flesh is all puffy, like tofu; white with the consistency of a cream puff or a cake. Red on the inside, near the bone, much like a rare drumstick. Indeed, when you grab the leg, it feels like a massive chicken leg. The flesh gets squished, and you find yourself clasping hard bone.

We needed strong stomachs. Some of the team members couldn’t handle it that first day. If we were handling fresher bodies, the whole affair would not have been as … queasy. But it would have been more disturbing.

Four bodies were found that day. The last was my most independent attempt Knee-deep in water, I grab the face and ribs and heaved it into the kafn (body bag). Or tried to, at least. The ribs broke, and the body was just too heavy. My brother grabbed a leg and had to help. Then, while I was adjusting the body inside the bag, he scooped up flesh and placed it hastily into the bag.

I’ll never forget that. I was swimming with a corpse. Practically hugging it

It should have been nauseating, being so close to rotten meat I can’t stand being at a butcher shop. I hate watching them cut the meat slashing it into manageable pieces. Fish are worse; their heads are still attached and their eyes look so sad. Even looking at a nasty wound makes me shudder. One of the reasons why 1 can’t be a doctor; I’m very squeamish, and seeing blood and flesh makes me sick.

But the thoughts that run through my head when 1 watch my mom gut a fish were absent when I was handling the bodies. I wasn’t sick, and I didn’t shiver the way I always do.

It must have been the sense of duty that I felt proving stronger than my queasy stomach. These bodies needed a burial. It was their right And it was our responsibility, as the living, to fulfill their needs. In Islam, we’re supposed to bury the body as quickly as possible, to get them to their grave. I experienced that first hand, the sense of urgency that should accompany any sort of burial.

Afterwards, on our way back, a sense of reprieve flooded through me. There was a sense of closure, collecting bodies so that they may be in their rightful places.

Closure became very important to me, as time went on. It soon accompanied each and every body we found, and I needed it to cure my uneasiness.

During future SAR excursions (we spent two days recovering corpses), we would sometimes stumble over a body that was buried in mud. We didn’t have any shovels or anything to dig it out, so all we could do was to leave a make-shift flag, hoping others better-equipped than us would see our marker.

I hated doing that. I felt like going off and finding a shovel, dig it out myself. Doubts shadowed my mind, for 1 thought it unlikely that they would chance on our flag (a stick with a piece of cloth tied to it). I felt guilty leaving it; what if nobody found it later on? For the rest of the day, I was afraid of missing any corpses, and I was repeatedly digging through the mud at what I thought were bones. Most of them were sticks, but I didn’t want to risk leaving anyone behind.

My searching earned me a place at the back of the group. I was lagging behind, frantically inspecting sticks, trying to balance out between a thorough search and being too separated from the rest of my team. But I couldn’t leave anyone behind. I needed closure.

How can people be arrogant when they realize what they look like after they die? To see what awaits you in the grave. To grasp the fact that, in the end, our bodies are reduced to flesh and bones, to be fed on by worms and maggots. These are things that everyone should see. People should realize that life is fragile; these people lost theirs in an instant Some without knowing what hit them, for they died too quickly. We can puff ourselves up, walk around with swollen heads, but what good is that when Allah can take it all away instantaneously.

I hope I never forget the sight of a human skull, the vacant eye sockets looking up at me. I want to be able to remember it whenever I feel too proud.

I couldn’t help but be silent on our return. I’m on the back of this big truck, and when you look around, all you see is debris. Turn your head 360 degrees, and still, all you see are torn down houses in an area flooded with water. And the view goes on for miles and miles.

You look, and you cannot begin to imagine the number of bodies that could be buried in there, amongst the rubble. How can you hope to recover all the bodies of those who have died in this tragedy? At more than 200,000 dead, the Indonesian government has stopped counting. People were telling me that it was useless. They don’t even have the time to give these bodies a proper wash and burial, let alone count them. There will never be an accurate estimate; as the months go by, the state of decomposition of those unfound bodies become worse and worse. You won’t be able to find them at all.

Impossible. That’s what it is. We humans are so small and insignificant in comparison to the whole situation that we’ve been put into. We are so tiny in the wake of such destruction.

How? Projected time for clean-up alone is five years; ten to rebuild. The day before we were cleaning up a nursing school, shoveling out dirt from one of the lower classrooms. Two hours of sweaty work, and we got only one room done. And the place has four floors. And that is only one building in one town. There is just so much work that has to be done. So much effort has to be expended simply on cleaning Indonesia.

Impossible. You look around, and you get dizzy looking at all the debris. This problem that we’re facing is simply absurd; at times like this you start wondering if it was all senseless murder by a higher power.

But these are dangerous thoughts. You cannot start questioning God. The way I see it, that is one line you never cross. There is most certainly divine wisdom behind this catastrophe. Just because we can’t comprehend the reasons behind such an act, it doesn’t mean that it is illogical. Hukum. It is always there. No matter how hard it is to accept at times like these.

FEBRUARY 9th, 2005- 2:00 PM

We met the Brazilians today. There were two of them, but one has such an inspirational story to tell.

He lived in Japan. He’s been here for a month. He had to sell his car to get enough money to come to Acheh. My teacher’s words:

“Malu kita-kita.”

Started saying about how we should be ashamed. Living so close and yet there are so many people not caring. They have the money, the time, and yet what do they do? Nothing. Brazil is a long way from here, and yet here we see two young men who traveled that distance.

How could I ever feel proud when I’m sitting next to the Brazilian? It was a humility check, and I needed one. I was starting to feel too proud about being a volunteer. About coming here. About being privileged to come. And that would have all but ruined my intention. Which was something I was worried about from the start

9:45 PM

In the background, I can hear someone making the adhan. The panic had driven us back to our base camp, which acted as a reinforced shelter for the surrounding area. We didn’t know where else to go. The noise had died down a bit; not so much screaming. It wasn’t for the better though, for it was apprehension that caused the people to settle down. There was a stillness in the air, while we all waited nervously for our deaths. Waiting for the water to engulf us. Silently praying for Allah’s mercy.

We waited for a good ten, fifteen minutes, but it felt like forever. I was getting impatient I just wanted something to happen, anything to break the tension. Even if it was a wave, it would be better than the waiting. The pain in my heart was gnawing at me; I wanted to get things over with.

Time passed, and still the water had not come, I kept looking up, so that I could see the wave before it hit me. Maybe take a picture of it But that was all I was doing, on lookout with camera ready. The wave was still to come.

Slowly, word got out People started hopping back on their motorcycles, the crowd gradually dispersing. Back home, to try and continue with their “normal,’ everyday Uves. The commotion was over. The reason why we didn’t see any water coming was because it wasn’t coming.

The panic was just that It was a false alarm.

It took us a while to piece the story together. Apparently, this all started because some fool wanted to start an uproar. Wanted to prey on everyone’s fears, which is very easy to do at the moment The people are scared. It’s gotten to the point where some are terrified of the sea, and with extremes reaching hydrophobia.

It takes only one. That’s all that was needed; one person yells “Airnaik, air naik!” and everyone scrambles.

Afterwards the guy walked into everyone’s homes, looting as much as he could carry. Nobody bothered to lock their doors; keys do very little against a tsunami.

It was a nice plan. Would’ve worked out too, except for the Indonesian Army who shot him before he got very far.

Our minds were still in a state of shock. Once again, it took a few minutes to register what had just happened. We were just standing around when it hit us.

Allah had spared our lives. Before anything else happened, we quickly scurried off to pray Salat al-Shukr. We had much to be grateful for.

We talked a lot that night Before the quake hit we were all discussing how we didn’t get the chance to visit Meulaboh. Only thing we would regret not being able to see the place with our own eyes.

But now, after the quake had hit our opinions changed. We no longer grieved over missing the Meulaboh experience. Rather, we unanimously agreed that tonight was the perfect ending to our trip. Our last night in Acheh, and we wouldn’t want our volunteer mission to end in any other way. Tonight had sealed this much in our memories, and we slept with our hearts content No regrets.

FEBRUARY 14th, 2005

First day of school after returning, and people keep asking me, “How was Acheh?”

I don’t know what to say. They’re asking as if I just got back from a holiday vacation. Giving me the impression that they’re expecting an answer like “It was good.” Or maybe “Tons of fun. Hope I can go back soon.”

I’m on my way to class, and they have places to go. They want a simple answer. The kind of reply that would make for what maybe three minutes of small talk. That’s all the time that both of us have to spare.

How do I compress the events of last week into a 15-second answer? A three-minute chat? If I wanted to be earnest I would have to sit them down and start from Day 1.

There’s so much to say. I want to describe to them what I saw over there. The scarring of the land. The amount of work that has to be done. People need a clear picture of what the destruction looks like.

I want to recount every incident that happened to me over there. Each event has a life lesson to be learnt and condensing everything into a few sentences dilutes the significance of each of these events; not something I would want to do. I can’t leave anything out

I want to tell them about how I feel. How sad I was to be in a refugee camp, where I saw the faces of people whose spirits are shattered. How compassion flooded me when a hungry cat played around with my shoelaces. My feeling of inadequacy. That even now, I still don’t think I’ve done enough, despite what some others might have said.

I can’t compress this all into idle banter.

And so, I’d rather keep to myself. I don’t think 1 would have the patience to recount my tale in full, even if I did find anyone to sit down with.

I have yet to open up to someone. Nevermind. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to find a suitable answer to all the questions.

“It was … good. I learnt a lot”

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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