26 December 2004, a 9.2 earthquake struck 100 miles off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The quake was the third largest ever recorded, lasted longer than any other, affected 14 countries and triggered a tsunami with 100 foot waves that left an estimated 227,898 people dead, most from a costal town called Banda Aceh.
When the earthquake hit, I was living in Hong Kong. I met its fury first on television when an alert in red crossed the screen streaming: Breaking News…
26 December 2004
A tsunami hits off the coast of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. It absconds with countless lives in seconds, lives lost at sea, devoured by an angry sea’s insatiable appetite that knows no limit as it consumes the human carnage it sucked off the face of the Earth. It leaves the rest of us speechless, breathless, helpless, hopeless, but not heartless.
I have often wondered what a broken heart looked like. Does it really split into pieces?
I have often wondered what a broken heart felt like. Does it still throb?
And if it does still throb, what does it pump, my blood has been replaced by floods of tears that cause there own tsunami inside me?
The news coverage of the tsunami is cataclysmic. I now know what a broken heart feels like because mine is now broken. I’ve experienced the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and lived through the Angolan civil war. I’ve witnessed the incarcerated Native Americans confined to no man’s land on their remote reservations, and the devastation of the Gujurat earthquake. Tut this Tsunami is something beyond. Mother Nature has unleashed a fury that swallowed up hundreds of thousands of people in seconds leaving nothing recognizable in their place. Young and old, all shades of skin and indifferent to nationality, religion, financial or social status, Mother Nature behaved badly, beating her children unconscious in an unconscionable act of savagery that surpasses any man-made event in our humanity’s history.
I can’t stand idle before a television screen as a spectator any longer. The mounting numbers of dead and missing, maimed, mutilated and muted leave me agitated and aggravated. I’m going to Banda Aceh.
I contact Doctors Without Borders and volunteer my services for immediate placement on one of their medical teams. They aren’t too enthusiastic. “We’re sorry,” they say apologetically. ”We cannot offer you a position.” Apparently, Banda Aceh is home to a separatist insurgency that has been warring there for decades and the organization doesn’t want the liability of something happening to me in the crossfire.
I wrongly assumed that with extensive experience in relief work around the world along with a burning heart to serve was the perfect profile for a volunteer. I thought I would be snatched up and on a plane already. Being a security liability never occurred to me, but I understand their position and concern for my safety. But then, doing nothing at this time is simply not an option. Having a valuable skill to help people in need but not being able to use it is insane. Being dismissed with a natural disaster of this magnitude is preposterous.
Too moved to move, I sit paralyzed before images on a television screen too monumental to process. The clock ticks. The second hand does its thing and they add up to hours, hours become days and when I can’t take it any longer, I make an executive decision. I will buy a ticket and fly to Indonesia.
Having finally made a decision, I will be able to settle. Or so I thought. I begin to have second thoughts. A médecin (doctor) without medicine is no more helpful than a carpenter without hands. I start to feel that my decision to go to Indonesia satisfies my need to act, but it is selfish. Without logistical support and supplies, what good can I do? If I arrive empty-handed I can only be burdensome to those already on the ground helping the survivors. It makes no sense to go with experience under my belt and empty hands in empty pockets.
Then just before I gave up, I received an invitation from a British-based humanitarian organization, Medical Emergency Relief International (MERLIN), to join their team to Banda Aceh. I’m off.