2006 I was part of a research project with UNICEF and a local university to conduct studies on children with trauma. The project focused on the 2004 Aceh earthquake and tsunami victims, and the effects it had on the children who witnessed the tragedy including the death of their loved ones. I had just lost my grandmother that summer and was cradling my own grief. Through the project I developed a newfound respect for children and their tenacity to soldier through events bigger than themselves. Inspired by their courage, they taught me the meaning of loss and perseverance.
The 2004 Aceh earthquake was caused by a tectonic rupture along the fault line between the Burma Plate and the Indian Plate. This created an undersea megathrust earthquake that lasted between eight to ten minutes. It registered a moment magnitude (Mw) of between 8–9.3, the third largest ever recorded in the 21st century.
The epicenter was off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. It triggered a series of tsunamis that lasted for seven hours across the Indian Ocean. Once heading inland, the tsunami waves grew up to 100 feet high created by the underwater seismic activity offshore. According to reports, it “devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, and Thailand, and as far away as East Africa.”
A coastal village named Kota Kuala Muda (KKM) was among the areas badly hit in my native country, Malaysia. Prior to the project, I had only watched news of the disaster on television. Being on site, however, was a surreal and unforgettable experience because of two reasons: due to the nature of politics, the media withheld aspects of realities from the public; much of what you witnessed felt better left undisclosed out of respect for the victims.
My task was to interview and observe the children affected. Since the incident, they were housed at a transit center provided by the government.
The village of KKM was located ten kilometers inland from the coast. The incident occurred slightly before 8am. Many of the children were left with their grandparents while their parents, mainly fishermen, were out at sea. These children lost either one of the following: a parent, a grandparent, a school friend. Some lost more than one.
I focused on the children aged between seven to twelve. Nothing prepared me for the “language of disaster” they taught me.
The waves were described as “a black hand” that came from the sea “taller than the coconut trees”. Many of them described, “The hand came in like a claw and pulled everything back to sea like a rake.” And when it did, it pulled their loved ones.
The water, they described, “smelled like sewage and dead bodies”. Their homes were filled with sediments from the ocean floor that came with “the hand”. Some died buried in the sediments, many drowned or died from sudden impact. It took weeks for volunteers to scrape and scoop out the sediments from the victims’ homes.
During the daytime the children played and ran about like children would. At night, however, something was odd. Late into the hours, like something out of a Stephen King’s novel, the children were still seen running around and congregating. I looked at the time. It showed 2.30am. They neither looked sleepy nor were seen sleeping anywhere. They were as hyped as during the daytime.
I spoke to a few parents the next day. They said since the incident the children developed insomnia. They also lost interest in school and refused to study.
I asked the parents separately if they were perturbed by this. They replied almost the same thing: “We are still grieving ourselves to deal with this. As long as the children are together and they are safe, we are fine with it. It’s been hard on them and they just want to huddle with friends. We can understand that. They miss their grandparents and we miss them too. A generation from this village has been taken from us.”
The children provided a different interpretation.
The children explained to me as clear as day, “We can’t sleep because we are scared the tsunami will come when we are sleeping. We won’t be able to run. We’ll be swept away into the sea by the black hand.”
I asked them about the huddling.
Their answer grabbed my heart, “We don’t want to lose our friends so we stay together. If anything happens we are together.”
I met a boy aged nine and his sister aged six. His mother reported that since witnessing the death of their grandmother in the tsunami, her children have lost interest in school and her son has changed his “personality”. I asked what she meant by “changed personality”.
The mum explained tearfully, “My son used to love studying and was at the top in class. He enjoyed going to school, playing with his friends in the evenings. Now he doesn’t. He prefers to stay at home and be with his sister. He lost interest in reading. Now he just draw.”
I sat with the two siblings and observed them for a while. The boy was occupied doing one sketch after another. His sister played with a doll beside him. I asked him about his drawing. He showed me The Black hand. “What is this?” I asked. “This is the hand that came in from the sea. This is the hand that took my grandmother.” There was a coconut tree and a house beside the giant hand. “What about this?” I pointed to the drawing. “This is my house and this is how high the hand went up. It almost ate my house. It ate grandma. ”
He continued with his drawing. One after another, it was almost identical. The hand, the coconut trees and the house. It was as if he needed to remind himself of something, so he won’t forget.
I asked him why he refused to go to school.
“I want to stay home and look after my sister and my parents.” He replied. “I couldn’t save grandma.”
His hand persisted with his sketch. His body had a certain degree of stiffness that was neither about fear nor discomfort. He just sat there, drawing, in a cocoon he had built for himself. He smiled when you said hello, but then you became invisible soon after.
I asked if I could keep a piece of his drawing. He handed me one. Typically you’d say to a child, “This is beautiful.” In this case I couldn’t because this hand in the picture “killed” his grandmother. We locked eyes. I smiled and said thank you. He smiled back for a split second and went back to his drawing. The boy had a certain “distant” look in his eyes. I wished I could hug and hold both children. I could feel him holding so much within his small body.
That was my closest encounter, seeing with my own eyes, a child experiencing trauma caused by a natural disaster. It’s something you don’t forget. It inspired me to better understand trauma and what happens to us.
Renowned psychiatrist, author, and researcher on trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, describes trauma as “an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories.”
In his famous book “The Body Keeps The Score” he notes that self-numbing and dissociation were characteristics of trauma. I could see traits of these in the children of KKM. “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
I observed the children, looked at the notes I’d made over the days I was there, and wondered about their healing. I wondered about their future as adults.
Their parents were victims too. Victims impinged upon victims. The entire community was pained by so many losses. They had lost their livelihood, homes and loved ones. It was a massive toll on children. I recalled what van der Kolk wrote about the painstaking journey towards remedial efforts: “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
I read about how trauma can cause brain shrinkage. Without proper therapy and guided counseling, these children are susceptible to long-term and severe depression exacerbating the shrinkage. Even prolonged low-grade depression was sufficient to cause brain shrinkage. It isn’t just the physiological reduction of the brain that calls for concern, it’s the loss of gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex. That is the epicenter of how we process our thoughts and emotions.
In recent years, more studies have been conducted on the human brain thanks to magnetic resonance imaging. Data of people with major depression and those who were healthy showed significant differences in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory, cognition and emotion.
People with recurrent and poorly treated depression showed a ten percent reduction of the hippocampus. Fortunately, the human brain has plasticity which means the condition is reversible, but only if correct treatment is provided. In most cases, the condition is ignored, undiagnosed or misdirected with medication. Eventually, we lose out living a quality life.
Van der Kolk was definitive about this throughout his research, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
Children of trauma caused by natural disasters like the ones at Kota Kuala Muda found unique ways to describe the enormity of their experiences. As individuals and as a collective, they had their own defense mechanisms to endure grief, fear and innocence. It is nothing short of remarkable.
On my last day I went to the beach area of the village. I looked into the horizon. I shuddered at the thought of a huge black wave coming towards me. I couldn’t move my legs. They were frozen, paralyzed by fear. The children were with me. I asked them if they were frightened by the sea. They laughed at me. I asked them what was so funny about my question.
“Why should we be afraid of the sea? We grew up here. This is our home.”