Keeping tsunami in people's minds

Fleet
Street feature writer Gill Martin explains why she is putting her
freelance career and comfortable life on hold to tackle her most
challenging assignment to date: as a volunteer with a charity in a
tsunami-ravaged region of Sumatra

WANTED: A volunteer to work in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, for six months from June to January.

That simple one-liner in an e-mail from Women in Journalism posted to all members last March pushed all the right buttons.

The
tsunami was one of the worst natural disasters in the world’s history,
prompting a huge humanitarian aid effort and, let’s face it, a stonking
good international story that any journalist would give their eye teeth
for.

But this was a different slant. What Plan International, the
British-based child sponsorship charity, wanted was a journalist to
keep the tsunami at the top of the news agenda in the run-up to the
first anniversary on Boxing Day.

“It will be a fascinating
experience,” they promised. “You will be helping to inform our
supporters all over the world about the work that their money is
funding in an area that really needs it.

You will be helping to make sure that those people whose lives were so devastated are not forgotten.”

I
applied four days later, on the day a second earthquake rocked the
region, leaving 300 dead and thousands missing. Not the best of omens.

After
supplying the first CV I can recall writing – my moves from the Daily
Mail to Daily Express to Sunday Mirror were accomplished over a drink
in a pub or wine bar – the interview threw up two minus points: no
alcohol in this strictly Muslim area, and no social life.

But why, I was asked, did I want the job? Hmm. There’s nothing remotely Mother Teresa about it.

I
can’t save the world. I haven’t got religion. But I have the
opportunity. No responsibilities. No mortgage. Widowed. Two grown-up
sons. An elderly, but very fit and feisty mother.

And for the
past year or so I’ve been involved in another charity, Springboard for
Children, based at Damilola Taylor’s old school.

Was
I going soft in my old age? No, I was still game for the odd doorstep
for a Sunday tabloid, and producing features for anyone from The Sunday
Times and Hello! to the Good Ski Guide. Maybe I was looking for a
change of direction. Journalism has given me a great life, so perhaps
it is payback time before I hang up my laptop and tootle off to the
Newspaper Press Fund retirement home in Dorking.

Home comforts I’d vaguely considered Voluntary Service Overseas.

Or, rather, I’d looked at the ads on the Tube and reckoned I didn’t have transferable skills.

The
fact that Plan International was founded by a British journalist during
the Spanish Civil War to help orphaned and traumatised children was a
nice touch. Since then the charity has spread to 45 countries. It
immediately went to work post-tsunami, helping with local communities
to build schools and houses, training teachers and health workers,
trauma counselling. It expects to be involved in the rehabilitation for
some years.

When I made the shortlist of four, I totted up what
I’d miss back home. The cats. The travel writing – there was still time
to fit in a five-star trip to the Canadian Rockies for a spot of
heli-hiking and white water rafting. Dark chocolate. Aromatherapy.

Theatre. Galleries. Family. And my friends.

After
36 hours and four flights to a run-down hotel in Banda Aceh, I realised
I’d also miss flushing loos, cool breezes and freedom from cockroaches
and mosquitoes.

Visiting communities devastated by the disaster
and hearing the stories of the bereaved put all that into perspective.
I’d steeled myself for an emotional onslaught. But focusing on writing
a feature for the Sunday Mirror kept me dry-eyed and in control. It
would be self-indulgent to show anything other than sympathy and
sensitivity when Sara, a skinny sevenyear- old with haunted eyes, told
me how she’d run up the mountain to escape the wave, calling out for
her mother. She was hoisted onto a villager’s shoulders. Her mother,
father and younger sister didn’t make it. Now Sara is alone, living
with another family in cramped barracks. Plan is building a new school
for her and the children of two villages flattened by the seaquake.

Ongoing
trauma I travelled with Warren Barton, the former England footballer
who was launching Plan’s football therapy initiative with orphaned and
dispossessed children.

He hadn’t heard Sara’s story, but he was
so struck by her spirit, he awarded her a football. It was her prized
possession. She gripped it firmly as the wind whipped up, sending a
tarpaulin shelter into a frenzied flapping. She looked terrified,
twisting her head towards the menacing sea. She cowered against the
long grey skirt of the school’s principal, who held her arm and said:
“She is still traumatised.”

Barton was determined to remain
detached. But as the father of three young sons, he was particularly
moved by the tale of the village head who had lost his wife, children
and father. He was forced to put his grief on hold to assist other
villagers.

“His eyes were unfocused and bloodshot. He was in a
different world. He couldn’t grieve because he was trying to get
relief, water, supplies. I am a father and I couldn’t imagine something
happening to my children,” said Barton.

He established an instant
rapport with the tsunami children. He had them laughing and totally
absorbed throughout nine arduous coaching sessions in sweltering heat
and humidity. In one session a 10-year-old boy called Suryadi could
only watch from the sidelines. His leg was badly broken as he fled the
tsunami. His parents and seven brothers and sisters could not escape.

A
word in Barton’s ear and he encouraged him to head balls rather than
kick. “I am very sad. But football makes me happy for a few minutes,”
said Suryadi, whom Plan had flown to a hospital in Jakarta to have a
metal plate fixed into his leg.

Plan’s presence is vital to help children such as Suryadi and Sara.

Plan
Indonesia was the first non-governmental organisation to arrive at one
isolated village whose inhabitants had struggled to exist without
sanitation and water for five months. The charity had provided latrines
and a bathhouse. Elsewhere it was also supplying tools, seeds and
pesticides to farmers who had lost everything, to fishermen without
nets, sewing aids to women embroiderers.

The problems seem
insurmountable – there are still earth tremors, regular power cuts for
those fortunate enough to have electricity, and sporadic fighting
between the separatists and the military, which means you have to be
out of the mountainous area by late afternoon. But by concentrating on
small projects, the results are achievable.

My new colleagues in
Plan Indonesia were charming, hospitable and helpful. My Indonesian was
shamefully non-existent, but communications officer Paulan translated
as I interviewed the children, parents, village heads, teachers. Their
stoicism was remarkable and humbling.

The next six months are not
going to be a walk in the park. But it will worthwhile if newspapers,
magazines and agencies, UK or international, contact me so I can supply
features and help other writers visit the region in the run-up to the
first anniversary on December 26. And if there is a celebrity or sports
agent who represents a client who wants to get involved in any
projects, do call.

Please help me help Plan International and the tsunami children.

Gill
Martin will be returning to Banda Aceh for six months in August.
Contact her on 020 8977 2104; 07850 582 486;
gillmartin@tedding.freeserve.co.uk See how you can help the tsunami
children by visiting www.plan-uk.org; mail@plan-international.org.uk;
Plan UK, 5-6 Underhill Street, London NW1 7HS; tel: 020 7482 9777.

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