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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

After the tsunami, a survivor becomes a hero

By John Budd

© UNICEF Indonesia/2005/Donan
Masyitah Sembiring has been named a UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, 21 March 2005 - Masyitah Sembiring doesn’t describe herself as a hero but others do. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, when the people of Aceh were completely on their own, she helped feed them with whatever food she could find for them.

She carried cooked rice around on foot and then set up a food aid post in a mosque, doing all this when the shock and pain of what happened to her was almost unbearable: Her sister and her sister’s entire family of seven were dead.

“I feel driven to help people,” she says.

A month later she approched UNICEF’s International Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who was on a factfinding mission to the devastated province, and offered her knowledge and help.

Today, three months after the tsunami ripped the heart out of her home town, she is distributing kerosene stove kits to displaced families as a UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer. Kerosene distribution is part of a UNICEF campaign to improve hygiene.

Masyitah approaches her work with a dauntless spirit. “My motto is, ‘You should never have to see a doctor in your life’. Healthy people can do anything.”

Masyitah holds a special bond with the people she is helping. She, too, is homeless. The tsunami flattened her sister’s home, where she had been living. Masyitah describes how she survived: “The day before the tsunami I had a premonition and that night I stayed with my brother.”

© UNICEF Indonesia/2005/Donan
Masyitah distributes kerosene stoves to people forced from their homes, in tsunami-affected Banda Aceh.

Masyitah has become a member of UNICEF’s water and sanitation staff. She spends her days visiting camps, ensuring that families whose homes have been destroyed have proper supplies for boiling water and washing. UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer Belinda Abraham says, “No one knows better what needs to be done than the people who live here.”

Help from people like Masyitah is vital to improve sanitation and hygiene in Aceh. “I don’t dream about being the top person in UNICEF. I just want to talk to people and tell them the importance of water and sanitation,” she says.

Tens of thousands of people are still living in temporary camps near mosques and schools across the province. In the camps, there is an average of one toilet for every 1,000 people.

As the lead UN agency coordinating water and sanitation activities, UNICEF is working with partners to address the needs of 50,000 survivors whose homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. UNICEF is supporting the construction of more latrines and bathing facilities and the clearing of overflowing septic tanks in larger camps. The organization is aiming to provide a latrine for every 50 people. It is also taking action to provide clean drinking water to 40,000 people every day.

“We’ve had a lot of trouble getting good water here because of the salinity levels. Since the earthquake, the change in the water tables has affected the population. They don’t have access to clean water. So the challenge still is to make sure that people have adequate amounts of safe drinking water,” Abraham says.

Helping people seems to be Masyitah’s vocation: “I’m grateful to UNICEF for a chance to prove my worth.”

“We need more people like Masyitah,” Abraham says. “She gives us a point of view that we, from the outside world, would never know. Not only does she give a lot to the community but she also understands their needs.”



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