Local heroes pick up the pieces in Sulawesi Indonesia

Nov 07, 2018
3-Minute Read

As a humanitarian, I’ve been in the midst of more disasters and conflicts than I can count. But what happened in the city of Palu, on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia is like nothing I’ve ever seen.
On September 28, 2018, Sulawesi was hit with a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. A tsunami followed five minutes later. Then, as if the terror of two natural disasters wasn’t enough, the ground literally opened up, behaving like a liquid rather than a solid. This is a process known as liquefaction. Before visiting the country two weeks ago, I watched video after video on Twitter, terrified by the sight of the ground turning to liquid under people’s feet.
Because of this disaster, entire villages have been buried underground. Children say that it looked like the trees were chasing them as the ground rushed towards them. Families trying to reach safety dodged motorcycles racing past them trying to get to higher ground and others that spun in the waves.

Destroyed homes still partially submerged in Palu, Indonesia

These homes were completely destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Photo: Lindsay Gladding 

What happened in Sulawesi at the end of September was complete and utter chaos- and it will take years for the people of Indonesia to pick up the pieces.
Local heroes
As a Canadian humanitarian based in Ontario, I have the responsibility to go to places like Sulawesi for short term missions. I see first hand the needs and the response, and promise to raise awareness among Canadians. Then I get to leave. The heroes of this story are the local staff who are the first responders and who stay long after foreign aid workers and the news media have packed up and shipped out.
Heroes like Ugi. Ugi was at the Wahana Visi Indonesia office, World Vision Canada’s local partner organization, when the earthquake struck. Immediately she raced outside, her first priority ensuring her four children, aged between 3 and 13 years old were safe. She quickly located two of her children, but Ugi couldn’t find the other two.
While she frantically searched for them, digging through the mud as the tsunami wave swirled around her, she held onto a coconut tree determined to survive. She heard the call of a small child and Ugi grabbed a hold of him, and pulled him to the tree saving his life, but was then herself knocked unconscious.

Two women, one in a headscarf, in Palu Indonesia

Ugi and me during my recent trip to Indonesia. Photo: Lindsay Gladding

Ugi survived, and joyously reunited with her four children who all survived the triple disaster. The family is now safe, but the effects of this experience, especially for Ugi’s children, will take months and years to recover from. After a brief rest away from Palu, where they were able to speak with counsellors, Ugi courageously returned to the island to continue her work.
Children first
Many families have fled into the mountains, fearing another tsunami on lower ground, so that is where World Vision is as well. Families at these makeshift settlements are living in tents, their own homes either too unstable to return to, or buried under the earth.
For the first three weeks after the disaster, schools were all closed as the community tried to respond to immediate needs. World Vision set up Child Friendly Spaces across the city to provide a safe place for these kids, to help them recover from and manage their very real fears of this kind of chaos happening again.
One of the ways staff do this is by teaching children how to protect themselves during a tsunami or earthquake. Through songs (such as the one above), children are able to take back some of their power over their own safety. The songs also give these precious little ones a chance to have fun together, to be kids again after their harrowing ordeal.

A World Vision staff member leads a group of children in song.

Seeing these children smile as they learned how to keep themselves safe through song was a highlight of my trip. Photo: Lindsay Gladding

The long haul
World Vision is committed to helping families in Sulawesi for the long haul, and it is local staff members who will bear the lion’s share of this responsibility. Many of them lost homes and loved ones themselves, yet continue to work long hours to help those in need.
It’s this courage that I witnessed first hand that I want to pass on to Canadians. Let’s honour their sacrifice, courage and love by supporting them here.

By Lindsay Gladding