Tsunami's ruination felt here, 2 years on
UH students recall the horror of the big waves and the havoc it wreaked on their kin
Ari Palawi stood in front of his house in Aceh, Indonesia, two years ago trying to understand why thousands of people were running away from the ocean, crying and praying as they moved inland.
A strong earthquake had just shaken Palawi's two-story home, and the 30-year-old music lecturer at a local university was busy checking for damage and making sure that his mother, younger sister and her baby were fine.
Then Palawi finally saw the water approaching -- swallowing trees, cars and everything else that stood in its path.
"It was about 75 centimeters high, filled with garbage and debris," Palawi recalled, adding that the scared residents who were rushing through warned about a freak high tide. "I thought there was something wrong, a big problem."
Two-year-old Kanchana stood yesterday amid the rubble of her house, which was destroyed in the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami at Akkaraipettai in Nagapattinam, India.
The Palawis fled their home and found shelter in a mosque above a hill where thousands had gathered. In the afternoon, when Palawi and his mother went back to survey the village, they stumbled upon a sea of bodies caked in mud.
The dead were not his neighbors, Palawi said, but villagers who lived closer to shore and had little time to react.
"The first time my mom saw the bodies, she screamed," Palawi said. "But after, she had no more energy to scream, she lost her voice. And we started to collect the bodies."
Nearly two years have passed since a magnitude-9.1 temblor off Sumatra unleashed a tsunami that slammed southern Asia, killing more than 216,000 people in 12 countries, leaving thousands homeless and causing widespread destruction in one of the world's worst catastrophes.
In the Indian city of Madras, the force of the waves wiped out a beachfront clothing store owned by the parents of Shs Raj, an international student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Raj, who was on Oahu enjoying a Christmas break from classes when the tsunami struck, received a frightened call from his parents, who told him their business had been destroyed.
"I was having a lot of fun here, and then they called up telling me that everything was gone," he recalled. "I was supposed to pay the tuition fees. I was expecting the money from my family. So I had no idea what to do, and I had no money to go back home."
Today, as hundreds remain displaced and recovery efforts are still ongoing in many areas, Raj and Palawi are among the fortunate who found some peace and stability in their lives in the wake of an event that seemed to have left them with nothing but chaos and uncertainty. They thank individuals, organizations and countries who helped victims on the ground and also donated money to scores of recovery funds.
Just days after the quake, Raj secured a tuition waiver with the assistance of the International Student Services office at UH-Manoa. Now he is spending a cold winter in Boston, where he is working for a local firm to gain some practical experience toward his doctorate degree in architecture.
"It's terrific, you know. They are nice people," the 30-year-old Raj said in a telephone interview, referring to the outpouring of support he got from the university. "I did not expect it. I thought everything was gone."
Raj, however, said he will likely need to rely on more financial assistance to complete his studies, noting that his family store, which was rebuilt, is struggling with a slow rebound in customers.
"Initially, it was really tough. Now? Yeah, they are doing OK, but still they are not in a place to support me," he said. "You don't see the damage that much. You see all the buildings, but you don't see the people that you used to see, the tourists and the crowd."
Support in Hawaii also came from the East-West Center Tsunami Relief Fund, which is only now getting ready to close its books after collecting $507,447 in donations statewide and on the mainland. The fund, which was set up immediately after the quake hit, will stay open until at least Jan. 31, when the center expects to distribute the final 2 percent of the money, said Kiran Sagoo, post-tsunami initiative coordinator.
Donations went to scores of programs in several countries affected by the tsunami, including $105,800 in scholarships to 50 students at the State Institute for Islamic Studies in Indonesia; $12,000 to assist 18 undergraduate students in Sri Lanka who lost a parent or a guardian; and nearly $3,000 that was used to buy office equipment for Wat Komneeyakhet School in Thailand as well as 62 bicycles for its students.
Palawi spent many months clearing debris from his home in Naggroe Aceh Darussalam and Syiah Kuala University, where the tsunami killed at least 80 lecturers and 220 members of staff. He is now enrolled in a master's program in ethnomusicology at UH-Manoa.
The 32-year-old, who got married in May and is now the father of a baby girl, said today -- when that awful disaster will be commemorated --- holds no special meaning for him. That's because Palawi says he doesn't need a date to be reminded of how many bodies he helped carry, how many homes he helped fix, how many families he saw suffer or just how scared he gets any time the earth rattles underneath him.
"For me the trauma of the tsunami is any time," said Palawi. "I don't have that feeling just after one year, two years. It's in me for my whole life."
Funds after the flood
Since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the East-West Center Tsunami Relief Fund collected $507,447 in donations. Here are a few projects to which some of the money went:
$30,000: WALHI (Indonesian Forum for Environment), Aceh, Indonesia. Addressing environmental and humanitarian issues with approximately 200 volunteers in Aceh providing emergency medical supplies, sanitation, food and water.
$50,000: Operation U.S.A. Providing medical and shelter supplies to tsunami victims in Indonesia as well as food, water, medical supplies and water purification equipment in Sri Lanka.
$15,000: International Center for Journalists, Indonesia.
To train student journalists in Aceh to achieve high levels of reporting, writing and production. Established the student radio station at State Institute of Islamic Studies as a training center, restarted its student newspaper and purchased computers and Internet connection for the Internet lab.
$24,700: SMA Negeri 9 Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
To purchase school uniforms and finance school fees, bus fares and extracurricular tuition for one year for 90 students, purchase 40 textbooks and 40 dictionaries for students.
$11,150: Samata Sarana Kindigoda, Sri Lanka.
Provided stationery, school bags and shoes for 300 children at the Kindigoda Center
HEALTH AND PSYCHOSOCIAL SUPPORT
$40,000: Sunera Foundation, Sri Lanka. Works with mentally and physically challenged individuals and other vulnerable and marginalized populations in Sri Lanka. Supported its "Tsunami Theater Outreach Project," which uses music, dance and drama to work toward rehabilitation.
REBUILDING HOMES AND LIVELIHOODS
$6,650: Samaritan Home Relief, Sri Lanka. Rebuilding the Samaritan Children's Home, an orphanage washed away by the tsunami on Sri Lanka's eastern peninsula. Also purchased bicycles, fishing nets and Petromax lanterns for fishermen.
$5,000: Rural Organization for Social Action. Helped villages in India regain their livelihood. Purchased fishing nets, fishing accessories and repaired fishing boats, purchased sewing machines.
Source: East-West Center