It’s immediately apparent that four-year-old Alfaed – visibly lost in thought and somewhat on edge - is more at ease bouncing a balloon around his grandfather’s small wooden house than playing with other children his age. He never quite loses his impish grin or his playful manner, but he averts his eyes from others and smacks the big balloon around the room with an intensity that suggests a sort of vengeance: Perhaps for all that he has been through lately, or for all that he has lost.
Watching Alfaed and wondering whether he’ll ever truly heal from losing his parents, aunt and four young cousins to the tsunami, is hard enough. Listening to Adnan Bintang, Alfaed’s grandfather and guardian, is more difficult still. With a sun-scorched face that has sadness and anxiety written all over it, Adnan appears much older than his 61 years. The man was off selling fish in the nearby provincial capital of Banda Aceh when the tsunami washed away his seaside village of Mon Ikeun on December 26, 2004, carrying with it most of his children and grandchildren. Fully nine months after the tragedy, part of him still seems in shock.
On that fateful day, Adnan had left for Banda Aceh at 7AM. The massive earthquake came about an hour later, and moments later a worried Adnan hopped a labi-labi public mini-bus back toward his village. But the water kept moving further inland, forcing the vehicle to halt and Adnan to escape up a three-meter-high tree where he remained until the flood had momentarily subsided. This all happened, he says, a full six kilometers from the coastline.
The water was still so deep Adnan literally had to swim in the direction of his village. “There was debris and bodies everywhere and it was so awful,“ recalls Adnan. ”Finally, around 7:30PM, I reached a military post about four kilometers from our village.” He stayed there for the night, but the next morning the water levels remained high. Adnan continued the arduous journey back to his home but was soon injured by a nail in the foot and could barely manage another step.
Meanwhile, on that same day, Adnan’s two surviving children evacuated little Alfaed and his older sister, Fina, 6, to an aid post at the nearby Kue Mosque. Alfaed couldn’t move and wouldn’t eat or drink. He had apparently been tossed a distance of about 300 meters by the violent current and had swallowed large amounts of seawater. A Red Cross team arrived at the aid post on December 30 to treat critical patients, including Alfaed, and evacuated him to a military hospital in the area. Alfaed and his surviving relatives reached the hospital at around 8PM, but the facility was so overwhelmed with emergency cases that by morning Alfaed still hadn’t been examined, and the family picked up and left.
They brought Alfaed back to the aid post, but it wasn’t until three days later, on January 2, that a Singaporean medical team arrived and upon seeing Alfaed’s condition insisted on his immediate evacuation to a hospital in Banda Aceh. There, Alfaed received excellent treatment from Singaporean specialists and was operated on the next day. The boy was badly infected, and remained hospitalized under close medical supervision for 12 days, all the while fed intravenously. Effectively paralyzed, Alfaed remained in this state through late January, when they finally moved him to the Jengala aid post near their original village. Alfaed could still not even stand up on his own. “He continued going for physiotherapy sessions at the Banda Aceh hospital each day,” says his grandfather, “and each night he’d cry from the pain and the trauma.”
It wasn’t until late February, a full two months after the tsunami, that Alfaed was finally able to stand up and start walking. By mid-March he was nearly back to his old self.
The Jengala aid post, serviced by UNICEF, is where a very fragile Alfaed began the slow process of getting his childhood back again. Alfaed still regularly participates in a UNICEF playgroup that organizes fun activities aimed at healing the lingering trauma faced by many young tsunami orphans. “Even after activity hours, Alfaed would often keep playing ball on his own until 2AM because he couldn’t sleep and would only otherwise just cry,” says Adnan.
“He’s been getting better and stronger but is still a lot shyer than he used to be, and distant with his classmates. He’s especially afraid to part with the people close to him,” says Adnan, glancing lovingly at his grandson, who’s playing quietly on the other side of the room with his older sister.
“Many volunteers who’ve worked with Alfaed through the Children’s Center stay in touch with him long after they’ve returned to Jakarta. Some have sent him toys and clothes. They really love my grandson.” Now Adnan begins to sob, suddenly consumed by the powerful mix of emotions, and perhaps also the daunting responsibility he now bears for his deceased child’s child.
“He depends on me for everything,” Adnan manages through his tears. “I’ve become a father again. When Alfaed wakes up he calls for me. He won’t leave the house or village without me. But I won’t force him to do a thing…I won’t make him go places he doesn’t want to go. I lost my own mother when I was six years old, so I understand him so well, and that’s why I could never hand him over to someone else to raise,” says the grandfather, still choked up. “We’ve been doing pretty well together so far. And Fina is being a good older sister, always looking out for him. I just worry about the future, and whether I can keep providing for them.”
For now, Adnan is clearly pouring his heart into the new role, perhaps because given everything that’s been lost, he needs his grandson as much as his grandson needs him.
The day of our visit happens to be National Polio Vaccination Day, and Adnan knows from the UNICEF-organized information campaign that as a child under five years of age, Alfaed must be immunized. The grandfather lifts his tiny grandson onto the back of his big bicycle and pedals them slowly in the direction of the local health clinic. As they weave down a dusty road and begin disappearing into the distance, they are suddenly alone again together. That’s when it becomes clear that for all the grandson-grandfather talk, they are in fact each other’s partners.