Tsunami Stories: Families Lost, and Task Ahead

Amirul Hadi, a scholar, said he looked for his wife and two children for three months after the tsunami.
Amirul Hadi, a scholar, said he looked for his wife and two children for three months after the tsunami. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

Amirul Hadi went to the microphone in the Indonesian Embassy's ornate music room yesterday as the late afternoon winter sky darkened. "I apologize," he told the silent audience of about 80 people, "if I become sentimental."

Then, as his voice choked and his eyes teared, Hadi told how his wife and two children disappeared in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami a year ago this week.

Hadi, 42, was flying home to Aceh from Jakarta when the gigantic wave hit their home, about 1,500 feet from the ocean, on Dec. 26. His plane was forced to turn back, and when he got home a day later, all he found was the building's floor.

His wife, Nazly, 37, his daughter, Nadhra, 9, and his son, Fawwaz, 4, were nowhere to be seen.

"I was looking for them intentionally for three months, on my motorcycle," said Hadi, an educator who is a resident scholar at the Library of Congress's Kluge Center. "But I found nothing."

Hadi and a couple who lost their children told their stories at a ceremony at the embassy in Northwest Washington that was titled "A Year-After Remembrance for the Tsunami Victims." The event was intended as a thank-you to those who have donated to relief efforts but also as a reminder that there is much to be done.

Noting that about 70,000 residents of Aceh still live in tents, Hadi said that the reconstruction effort is "going very slow." Many people, he added, are still hurting psychologically. "They are still struggling with their suffering."

The event was sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy, the Indonesian Community Association and two organizations involved in the relief effort: the International Institute for Psychosocial Development and Islamic Relief.

Fourteen relief groups sent representatives to the ceremony.

"What we are doing is good, but it's not enough," said Rizwan Mowlana, a Gaithersburg resident and native of Sri Lanka, another country overwhelmed by the tsunami.

In the early days after the disaster, Mowlana became a solo relief worker, collecting more than $1.5 million in funds and goods that he shipped and distributed in Sri Lanki. Mowlana, who lost 40 members of his extended family, is now working with Islamic Relief, a 20-year-old social service agency operating in 35 countries. But Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan have drawn attention and money away from reconstruction efforts in the tsunami-hit nations, he said.

"We are here not to pat ourselves on the back, but to remind ourselves that the work is not yet done," Mowlana added.

The Indonesian charge d'affaires, Andri Hadi, welcomed the guests, who included State Department officials and diplomats from some of the other affected countries.

"Thank you for your kindnesses and generosity," he said. "We are in a very complex recovery and rehabilitation process. . . . We have to face the reality that the damage was immense."

The giant earthquake-generated wave left an estimated 216,858 people dead or missing in 12 countries. Indonesia was hit hardest, with 131,338 killed. Sri Lanka, with 31,229, had the second-most victims. More than 2 million people were displaced.

It was clear yesterday that the tsunami is still taking a dreadful emotional toll.

Like everyone else on that sun-splashed morning, Gunawan Adnan and his wife, Fita Drisma, had never imagined a calamity of such proportions. Adnan, a college lecturer, was playing ball with his friends. Drisma, a medical doctor, was in Jakarta on business.

When Drisma made it home two days later, she was met at the airport by her husband, who had been temporarily swept up in the wave as he raced home to get his children.

"He was in very bad shape," Drisma recalled tearfully. "He hugged me and said, 'We lost our children.' "

As the couple told their story, snapshots of Aidil, 9, and Natasha, 7, flashed on a screen.

"We never found our family," Drisma said. They lost 45 members of their extended families.

She and Adnan, who are working with survivors of the tsunami, were brought to the United States by the International Institute for Psychosocial Development to meet victims of Katrina. They just completed a three-week tour of the Mississippi Gulf Coast area, sharing their stories with people who lost everything in the hurricane.

"It meant so much to me," Drisma said. "We have the same feelings."

Despite their loss, she told the audience, she and her husband have made a decision. "We must go on. We can't be helpless, just hoping for other people to help us. This is not a life. We have to go on."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company