Friday, September 30, 2005

Lili's story

Lili and her husband Hajat live in Meulabot, Indonesia. Located on the west coast of the island of Sumatra, in Aceh province, Meulabot was devastated by the tsunami last December. They lived on a peninsula that jutted out into the Indian Ocean in a community of open, two story homes built with the angular tiled roofs characteristic of Achenese architecture.

The village in which they lived was totally destroyed by the waves of the tsunami that followed the massive undersea earthquake that Sunday morning. Two thousand of the three thousand residents in their community were killed. As we walked through the debris, Hajat pointed out where his house had been, and then where they found the bodies of his parents.

Lili and Hajat live in temporary housing with their daughter Liasya Putri. Putri’s life is a gift. In the tsunami, she was trapped in their home beneath a fallen timber, and they thought that she was dead when they finally pulled her out of the water. She has some damage to her lungs, and still has a fear of water, which they hope she will get over in time.

I stayed in their home for three nights, sleeping on a mat on the floor and waking early each morning as the call to prayer rang out from the mosque next door. They shared their lives with me, telling me their stories and showing me their pictures of the tsunami and the aftermath.

Lili described the bookstore that she had started a few years earlier, the only bookstore in Meulabot. It was a children’s bookstore, where she lent books to the 800 children who were members of her store. As Lili described her bookstore, it occurred to me that what she had actually created for the children of her town was a lending library. The store had more than 5,000 books, most of which Hajat bought at a used bookstore in Jakarta from time to time. The store lay in the path of the tsunami and they had only three books left from the collection.

I asked Lili if she would start the store over if money could be found. Yes, she said softly, but the problem was not so much that they had lost the books, but that they had lost the children.

The tsunami was an event of biblical proportions, evident particularly in the descriptions that residents give of that morning: The ground shook. The ocean disappeared. The fish lay on the sand. The children ran out to collect the fish. The wave came and took the children.

Across the province of Aceh, people still hope to find their children who were lost that day. Across the province of four million people, 200,000 or so are listed as dead, and another 40,000 as missing, many of them children. Months later, people still cling to the hope that their children have been found and taken in elsewhere.

Hope is the currency of the survivors. The newspaper carries stories periodically of children that have been found. One story in the Jakarta Post told of a crippled girl left alone as the waves hit who rose from her wheelchair, survived, and has recovered the use of her legs. Iqbal, a man that I worked closely with, continues to publish notices in a newspaper in search of the child of a friend. He is from Kalimantan (formerly Borneo) and working on a relief project for the year in Aceh. He hopes that they will find the child before he returns home.

We will raise the money and Lili will start her store again. The parents of the 200 or so surviving children keep calling her. Their children want to read. New habits die hard. Hajat plans to begin to rebuild their collection the next time he travels to Jakarta.

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