Hendra & Hendri
If it weren’t for the bandana wrapped tightly around Hendri’s head and the mischievous grin on Hendra’s face, it would be impossible to tell these identical twins apart. The 13-year-old brothers run around the UNICEF Children’s Center in Neuhen so manically that keeping track of them is probably a hopeless cause anyway. Ironically, Hendri wants to be a teacher some day, and Hendra a policeman.
The boys’ boundless energy and knack for naughtiness belies - or perhaps makes up for - the tragic and surreal ordeals they’ve experienced. When the earthquake and tsunami struck their seaside village of Alue Naga outside of Banda Aceh on that fateful day in late December 2004, their mother and four siblings were swept into the ocean, never to be seen again. Hendri and Hendra miraculously escaped the waves but spent days wandering aimlessly on their own, until an uncle found them two weeks later at a makeshift camp for displaced persons and reunited them with their father, who had survived as well. The boys and their father spent the next three months in the town of Sigli, some three hours northeast of Banda Aceh.
The government-established temporary living barracks in Neuhen, where the twins now reside with their father, are adequate for now. The single room the family has been assigned doubles as a kitchen and sleeping space and doesn’t allow in much natural light. But it provides crucial shelter during the current rainy season, and literally serves as a platform from which to start putting life back together again.
On the surface, life in the barracks seems slow and uneventful, but already there is a vibrant sense of community: porch side gossip, joint meals being prepared behind the neat rows of wooden housing structures, neighborly interaction just as in any small town. But the social focal point is the UNICEF Children’s Center, situated right near the entrance to the housing complex. The facility – an enormous wooden platform under a protective canopy - buzzes pretty much from dawn to dusk with activities. Here, children from the barracks are afforded their own space to play. Some run around in circles letting off steam, or kick a volleyball around, while others participate in organized activities supervised by the Center’s professionally trained counselors. Depending on the day of the week, activities range from traditional Acehnese dance lessons to arts and crafts to sporting events and Koran reading sessions. Kids here have plenty to keep them busy when they’re not away at school.
School is a bit of contentious issue here at Neuhen, and a challenge the counselors are trying to handle delicately. Hendra and Hendri, for instance, last bothered attending their junior high school three days ago. “I’m feeling lazy again today,” admits Hendri, “and our school is so far away now. We have to pay 2,000 Rupiah (about 20 cents) for the minibus ride, and then have no money left for snacks when we get there.”
Amina, 24, one of the counselors at the Children’s Center, shrugs her shoulders in frustration. “It’s an ongoing problem,” she explains. “Because so many parents and older siblings were lost in the tsunami, the usual family authority figures or support structures are often missing, so there is nobody pushing the kids to go to school each day, and they can get away with whatever they like.” Currently, according to Amina, only around 20 children from these barracks attend school regularly. “We can’t force anybody to do anything,” she adds. “That’s not our job. We are here to encourage and support, but ultimately it’s up to surviving heads of family to impose some sort of discipline.”
Hendra and Hendri’s father, Husaini, overhears this comment and jumps in to the conversation, understandably defensive. “It’s so hard to manage everything now,” says the 50-year-old widower. Most of the day I’m away from the barracks searching for work, so I hardly know what goes on at home, or whether the boys even left for school or not.”
Husaini used to work in the fishing industry but hasn’t been able to find similar employment since the tsunami. The family therefore survives - just barely - on a 36-kilogram-per-month allocation of rice from the government. “We don’t eat nearly that much rice,” explains Husaini matter-of-factly, “so I sell a big share of that to earn a bit of cash, and we live off that for now.” Despite the twins’ sometimes unruly behavior, “They are basically good kids,” says their father. “They do most of the cooking for us at home - although it’s usually just fried rice or an omelet or instant noodles - and they help me with the heavy housework.”
Husaini says he hear many well-meaning promises from NGO visitors, like that the barrack residents will receive funds to help send their kids to school. “But these promises are almost never fulfilled,” he says.