Indonesian Mennonites and trauma healing in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh

[Individual articles from the Winter 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The earthquake and tsunami in Aceh which occurred on December 26, 2004, represents one of the deadliest disasters in Indonesian history. The Indian Ocean tsunami killed up to 280,000 people in 14 countries, with the greatest number of casualties in Aceh, where more than 150,000 people died and disappeared. Thousands upon thousands of homes and other buildings were destroyed, with major devastation to infrastructure.

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake occurred off the west coast of northern Sumatra which caused a tsunami, a series of large seismic waves, that devastated the surrounding coastal areas killing more than 260,000 people and rendering five million people homeless. MCC responded in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Somalia and other countries with immediate and long-term aid including food, health, housing, income re-generation and trauma counseling. (MCC photo/Dan Marschka)

The tsunami displaced tens of thousands of Acehnese. International and Indonesian aid agencies arrived in Aceh to assist. One of these agencies was the Indonesian Mennonite Diakonia Service, or IMDS, established in 2005 by one of the Indonesian Mennonite churches (GKMI Synod). Together with the Forum of Humanitarian and Indonesian Brotherhood (FKPI), IMDS mobilized to provide trauma healing services to displaced Acehnese who had lived through the tsunami. IMDS drew in interfaith volunteers from the theology faculty of Duta Wacana Yogyakarta and psychology faculty from Soegiyopranoto Semarang and Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga to help design and implement the trauma response program. Meanwhile, MCC brought in psychologists Karl and Evelyn Bartsch to help prepare trauma response modules and train IMDS staff in trauma-informed programming. Upon entering Aceh, the IMDS team connected with the Al-Muayat Windan Islamic boarding school to review the trauma modules to ensure that the trauma responses IMDS would be promoting would be accepted within the Islamic culture of Aceh. Ustad Dian Nafi of the boarding school proved invaluable in this process.

After extensive consultation, IMDS, with MCC support, published a book containing culturally-rooted trauma healing modules. Entitled The Wounded Healer (Stress and Trauma Healing), this book was developed to train IMDS and other trauma response workers in Java prior to going to Aceh to offer workshops on ways for victims of the tsunami to cope with and recover from trauma as well as to help relatives and neighbors in recovering from trauma. The trauma healing model employed by IMDS included the following components:

Safe place: Providing trauma relief required building good relationships with communities traumatized by the tsunami, with good relationships fostering a sense of comfort and trust and strengthening peace within communities by nurturing bonds across lines of difference.

Trauma healing support: Therapeutic initiatives promoted psychological and spirituality recovery.

Spirituality support: Religion was understood to be an important resource in helping communities to cope with and recover from trauma. Muslim volunteers helped to ensure that IMDS’s program offered spiritual support to Acehnese victims of the tsunami that spoke to them from the depths of the Islamic tradition.

Activity support: Trauma healing involves not just the mind and spirit, but also the body. IMDS therefore organized sports, handicrafts and other activities tailored for women, girls, men and boys displaced by the tsunami that energized their bodies and spirits.

IMDS understood religion to be an important resource in helping communities to cope with and recover from trauma.

Counselor/psychologist assistance: IMDS provided specialized training to counselors and psychologists in Aceh so that they would be equipped to provide trauma healing support to thousands of Acehnese whose lives had been turned upside-down by the tsunami.

IMDS initiated its trauma healing response in Aceh in early 2005, three weeks following the tsunami. Acehnese initially responded to the trauma healing program with suspicion, viewing it as strange, given the deep sadness of loss from the tsunami, to be invited to engage in activities in which they had space to laugh, play and tell stories. Over time, however, they came to value the program, recognizing how the trauma healing activities had improved their lives, building their resilience.

Trauma healing involves not just the mind and spirit, but also the body. IMDS therefore organized sports, handicrafts and other activities tailored for women, girls, men and boys displaced by the tsunami that energized their bodies and spirits.

IMDS offered intensive services to tsunami victims who faced particularly intense challenges. One such example was an Acehnese woman whom I will call Tini. Tini felt excessive guilt for losing her one close relative, her sister. Prior to the tsunami, Tini’s sister had left home to buy cooking materials. After feeling the earthquake that led to the tsunami, Tini went out to look for her sister, but couldn’t find her. As the sea water began to rise rapidly, Tini joined others in the chaos in running to higher ground, with people falling, being stepped on and calling out for help, but with everyone paying attention to their own safety. When her sister   could not be found following the tsunami, Tini could not bear the sadness and the feeling of guilt for having survived. She struggled with feelings of isolation and had difficulty comprehending how her life could go on. At a friend’s urging, Tini attended an IMDS workshop on trauma healing and then subsequently received intensive psychological support and counseling. Over time, Tini’s spirit of life returned, and she was able to reengage with her community. Tini’s story highlights that effective disaster responses not only attend to the physical needs of persons whose lives have been devastated by war, tsunamis, hurricanes and more, but also pay attention to their psychological and spiritual needs. Over the ensuing fifteen years, trauma healing initiatives have become a standard component of MCC and IMDS humanitarian relief initiatives.

Paulus Hartono is a pastor at GKMI Solo (Gerjea Kristen Muria Indonesia, or Muria Christian Church in Indonesia) in Central Java, Indonesia. He founded and currently serves as the director of Indonesia Mennonite Diakonia Service (IMDS).

Hyndman, Jennifer. Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2011.

Régnier, P., Neri, B., Scuteri, S., and Miniati, S. “From Emergency Relief to Livelihood Recovery.” Disaster Prevention and Management 17/3 (2008): 410-430.

Telford, John and John Cosgrave. “The International Humanitarian System and the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunamis.” Disaster 31/1 (2007):1-28.

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