Homecoming: Injured reunited with Nias family

Sunday, May 29, 2005
By nias

Sunday, May 29, 2005 Upon the invitation of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), The Jakarta Post's Chisato Hara observed the organization's assisted voluntary return program in Medan, in Gunung Sitoli, Nias, and onboard the USNS Mercy off the coast of Nias.

Adeli Zebua, 31, is still in pain from a leg injury he suffered during the catastrophic Nias earthquake of March 28, and hobbles on still-unfamiliar crutches into the lobby of a hotel in Medan, North Sumatra. He cannot straighten his right leg fully, and plops down on a chair with it extended out in front of him.

Adeli's five-year-old son Ardiman follows behind, carried by his sister Iberia, 36, who flew out to Medan when the two were evacuated for medical treatment. Ardiman appears either sleepy or tired, and is glum as he hangs onto his aunt's neck.

It is April 27, and the three are part of a group of seven Nias residents who will be flown home to the island under the assisted voluntary return program of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in coordination with the Croix-Rouge Francaise, the French Red Cross, which is providing a charter plane.

So far, the IOM has facilitated the return of about 100 medevacked Nias residents from various hospitals in the North Sumatra capital.

"Adeli broke his leg, and Ardiman broke both legs in the earthquake, and see? Now one is shorter than the other," said Iberia. The boy stands up, and his right leg is clearly shorter by about three centimeters or so.

"After potential returnees are discharged from local hospitals, we carry out an independent assessment to see if they are fit to travel. Unfortunately, sometimes their discharge papers are either incomplete or not detailed," said IOM Medan senior nurse coordinator Kristin Porca, a professional nurse from the Philippines.

The three have been staying at the local hotel for about a week since their discharge, waiting for their turn to go home. Adeli is anxious to get back — his wife gave birth while he was in Medan, and he has yet to meet his new daughter.

"We were lucky," said Iberia. "Adeli's house is completely destroyed and he lost his eight-year-old daughter, Sirina — but wealthy families had houses four stories tall that collapsed and killed everyone inside. A family of 15 people — that's three generations under one roof. No one came out alive of those great houses."

An IOM staffer takes care of the hotel bill — the organization provides accommodation as part of its program — and about 30 minutes later, a small van pulls up to transport the returnees and their IOM escorts to Polonia Airport.

The charter plane, a 14-passenger CASA 212, is parked in a hangar near the cargo bay, and an administrator from the IOM airport support office fills in the passenger manifest — including the weight of luggage and individual passengers.

Two other IOM vehicles are on their way to the airport with the rest of the returnees for that day: Requeli Sarumaha, 52, and his injured son Sugesti, 22; and Lolombowo Telambanua, 50, and his injured granddaughter Periwati, 8.

Requeli and Sugesti are in high spirits, happy to be going home. "My son has been to Medan, but I've never been off Nias," said Requeli, whose wife and five other children all survived with minor injuries — although his 18-year-old daughter Wati required 14 stitches for a head injury.

Sugesti, meanwhile, is standing off at a distance watching planes, with his forearm in a cast and a black cowboy hat slung behind his neck, and smiles broadly whenever he makes eye contact with anyone.

Lolombowo and his granddaughter are solemn, and the wiry grandfather carries Periwati from the car — her right leg is in a cast from hip to ankle.

While Ardiman's spirits have lifted at the sight of airplanes landing and taking off, Periwati hardly looks up, only occasionally peering up from under her bangs, then hiding her face in her grandfather's chest.

Later, Lolombowo explains: "Wati is an only child — her younger brother died when she was seven — and the earthquake took her mother and father, my only son. My wife is waiting for us on Nias, but what are we to do? We are not young anymore, and Wati's still so young. What will we do about her schooling?"

An IOM staffer passes out lunch parcels — fried chicken, green beans and soft drinks — and Ardiman munches his chicken and gulps Coca-Cola while cuddling a teddy bear he has pulled out from his bag. Occasionally, he burps, followed by a giggle: I love Coca-Cola. I can drink Coca-Cola all the time."

He has named his teddy bear Iom (ee-om) after the organization, whose nurses distributed donated toys to all Nias children evacuated to Medan.

"Next thing you know, there will be children named Iom," joked Marc Petzoldt, head of IOM's Nias operations.

As French Red Cross workers arrive — they are transporting pipes, a generator and other equipment to install running water in damaged areas on Nias — a freak thunderstorm builds up as it has done all week, and the flight is delayed due to uncertain weather conditions over the island.

The skies clear eventually, but there has been a change to the passenger manifest because of weight restrictions — Parco and a few other IOM escorts will not be coming, and some of the returnees' luggage will be sent the following day.

During the 1.5-hour flight, the returnees doze or rest — except Requeli, who looks nervous and strained as he grips the armrests. As Nias comes within view, however, his lined face brightens: "There it is! There's Nias!" he exclaims in a hushed voice to the others, who all lean over to his side of the plane to look out at the lush green island.

In contrast, the drive from Nias airport is one of scattered ruins. All along the road are collapsed houses and huts; in their front yards are tents bearing the logos of the Indonesian Red Cross, the International Red Cross/Crescent, Rotary International, Johannitas International Aid and other organizations.

"The worst damage was to the south," said Petzoldt, where Nias was known for its small but bustling surfing industry. "The bridge is down in Teluk Dalam. In other places, the road was lifted two, three meters by the quake, and there's only one major road. So there's great difficulty transporting heavy equipment on the island — the equipment and other materials needed to reconstruct bridges and roads."

The road to Gunung Sitoli is in good condition, but more destruction is evident as the capital draws near — four-story shop-houses have caved in completely, with their roofs resting atop their foundations, and others are literally piles of rubble with no semblance to its former structure. There seems to be no pattern to the destruction, and buildings in mint condition stand next to a leveled plot, where residents climb over rubble or under tilting tiers searching for reusable or resalable scrap material.

"But it's much better this week," continued Petzoldt. "Stores are open, there are more people out. Last week, downtown was still a ghost town, and it was quiet."

He points out a riverbank where several colorfully painted pontoons lie upended — the site of the central fish market, which was destroyed. "(The IOM) set up a temporary market in the main harbor on the other side of town, and it seems to be working. Fishermen have come out to trade again, and there seem to be more every day."

The central square, Lapangan Merdeka (Independence field), is the site of a base camp for relief efforts, where non-governmental organizations and government institutions — including the Social Welfare Department and the police's Mobile Brigade (Brimob) — have pitched their tents, and the Indonesian Red Cross-Riau (PMI Riau) runs a field clinic to provide free medical treatment.

Dr. Santosa of PMI Riau said the rotating teams — each consisting of one doctor, two medical workers and seven volunteers — had treated 150 to 180 people daily since the earthquake. "But it's dropping off now to about 100 people a day."

Aside from the Zebua family, who board a waiting bus, the other returnees will overnight at the base camp and await the arrival of their luggage.

Lolombowo is slightly frantic: "Our bags got left behind in Medan! How will we get them? And how will we get home (to our village)?"

He calms down somewhat when he is told the bags will arrive the next day, and that the IOM will provide transportation to his village.

Requeli, on the other hand, is beaming, happy just to be back on the island. "Just a small trip left. But I am home. It's good to be home," he said, and led the furrow-browed Lolombowo away to his tent. "You'll see, everything will be all right. We're being looked after."

Meanwhile, Adeli, Ardiman and Iberia have boarded an IOM minivan for a 15-minute drive up the hills to their kampong above Gunung Sitoli.

The neighborhood is subdued as the two cars arrive, although a few children and adults look curiously at the stopping vehicles. As Iberia and Ardiman emerge, a girl runs off to start the grapevine, and by the time Adeli alights, the cars are surrounded by neighbors shouting excitedly.

"Someone get his wife!" yells one man as he helps Adeli on his crutches to a nearby porch.

Everyone crowds around the three, welcoming them home.

A sobbing woman carrying a newborn comes through those assembled, and drops down on her knees to embrace her husband and to present their new daughter — her words are lost in her wails. She then turns to embrace Ardiman, and he sets his mouth in a hard line, trying not to cry in front of the entire kampong. He soon gives up the fight and sobs with his mother.

From somewhere, a smaller version of Ardiman appears — his younger brother — and jumps onto Adeli's lap.

The neighbors press ever closer in a tight ring around the reunified family, and soon, jokes are made and laughter marks the occasion.

Adeli's wife is still overwhelmed as she approaches Petzolt, and it is all she can manage to say thank you.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for bringing them home …," she says, then buries her face in her baby daughter's blanket. She tries to introduce the baby, and gets out "Sira …", but the rest is lost in fresh tears.

Is she named after Sirina, the daughter she lost?

"Yes. We lost a daughter. But have gained one. And now (Adeli and Ardiman) are home. We are a family again."

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May 2005