I Was In Indonesia Days Before Villages Turned To Rubble

Dreams. Ambition. Community. That's what I saw in the people I met, just days before a 7.7 magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated Sulawesi.

You may have heard that a tsunami hit the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia recently. You may have seen the images of devastation; whole cities reduced to muddy rubble, an endless vista of homes deconstructed back to simple building materials. You may have heard of the thousands dead, the looting and lawlessness, the overwhelmed hospitals, and the threat of disease.

I was on holidays in Spain with my family when I learned of the news, awoken at 5am by a text message from a friend.  Sitting up in bed, I froze. I couldn't believe what I was reading.  You see, I had been in Sulawesi, walking the streets of Palu and those nearby villages, just days earlier.

A helicopter dumps disinfectant over rubble in Indonesia where thousands are feared buried after the devastating earthquake and tsunami last month.  (Image: Getty)

As I scrolled through the news articles and began to understand the absolute mayhem an earthquake and then a tsunami can inflict on a place, I was surprised by unlikely thoughts. Perhaps in defiance of reality, my head filled with images of those pretty towns before the disaster, still intact, still full of life. Villages where, after travelling from busy Jakarta, you’re immediately embraced by a sense of space, by the beautiful light and the idyllic pastel colours of the houses lining the streets.

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Villages where, even though people don’t have all the things we do, industry, entrepreneurship and social consciousness are ever present. Where women and men are focused on their futures and those of their children. Where the people are motivated, resourceful, energetic, and the children are happy.

Megan with young women she met in Palu before the  tsunami hit. (Image: Supplied)

That’s what’s so hard to comprehend, I suppose. That one day a village or town or city can be bustling with activity and the next it can be a disaster zone. In Australia, where so few of us ever see a disaster of this size in person, we’re used to watching disasters unfold on television, or in two-dimensional newspaper images. We see pictures of desolate, alien landscapes, people weeping for lost loved ones, and the shocking giant wave crashing down on human civilisation. To most of us it feels abstract, distant and inconceivable.

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This time though, I try to remember that before the disaster, there were childhood dreams, there was ambition, there was community. There was the woman I met in Balane who had borrowed money from an adult savings group to purchase a manual pasta machine and was pioneering a new type of noodle made from a local plant. And the children who had formed a savings collective, who spoke with a confidence and maturity that defied their age. And the young woman who dreamed of going to university and becoming an office worker in Jakarta.

In the nearby town of Padende, there was the grassroots anti-drug campaign being run entirely by children, and a remarkable young woman named Fitrah who at aged 18 oozed leadership qualities and declared her ambition to become President.

Megan with Fitrah, a World Vision Beneficiary and leader of young girls, who says she one day wants to be President. (Image: Supplied)

In the days after disaster struck Sulawesi, with the extent of the damage becoming clearer, I started to worry deeply about the communities and the children I had visited.  Their faces and the sound of their laughter (there was always laughter) stayed with me throughout the day.

Miraculously, I heard from a World Vision colleague Rina, who told me she was ok and taking shelter with other staff members and their families. And then, after an agonisingly long wait as information slowly began to flow through from the villages, I learned that Fitrah was found safe too.

Unfortunately, the fate of so many others remains unknown. And I cannot help but think, what of my future office worker? Of the little children who fell down laughing as they tried in vain to teach me to count to 10? Of the young boy no older than 12 fighting the war on drugs in his community?  And of the countless thousands of others who have undoubtedly had their whole lives ripped apart by this event and who now need more strength than ever to rebuild them.

And even if they survived, what will become of these children’s education? Will it be relegated to the non-priority list as communities focus on the absolute necessities of shelter, food and clean water? I can only hope that the resourcefulness I witnessed on my visit will hold them in good stead.

Megan McDonald is employed by World Vision Australia. Click here for more information on the Indonesia disaster or to donate to World Vision’s Indonesia appeal.