Meeting the survivors

Indonesia, September 10, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Octavia Mariance/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ibu Wiji and her son Muhammad Rian, survivors of the recent earthquake. Photo: Octavia Mariance/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Octavia Mariance/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Earthquake survivors in Pameng Peuk prepare food for the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast. Photo: Octavia Mariance/Mercy Corps

Last Friday afternoon, as half of Mercy Corps' Healthy Start team were preparing for the weekend, we were suddenly pulled into a rush meeting at the round table we share. We found out that three of our team members would be going to Garut Selatan — one of many districts affected by the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that struck West Java — with other two Indonesia Response Team (IRT) members that very night. More than 64,000 houses in the area were shattered by the earthquake.

It took about eight hours by car for us to reach Pameng Peuk and Cikelet, two sub-districts in Garut Selatan. We had just two hours to refresh ourselves before beginning to go around to the tents where earthquake survivors were staying. We also visited local puskesmas — community health posts — to collect information related to breastfeeding in this emergency situation. Along the way to the survivors' tents, we saw many shattered houses, temporary shelters constructed from bales of rice paddy, people gathered in the streets and makeshift signs hung in the trees to show the location of tents.

It was a month ago that we received a storytelling training from Roger Burks and Thatcher Cook in which they explained that, at Mercy Corps, we use the terminology of survivor rather than victim to respect their dignity. And, in Garut Selatan, we met those survivors.

In the first set of tents we visited, we didn’t see many survivors there. Only three women with some children, playing and shouting with each other, were there as we talked with them and used our cameras to capture the reality of the situation. According to Ibu Wiji, a mother of two children, the children and women stayed in the tent every night while their husbands and other men vigilantly stayed near to their houses to watch over their belongings.

We asked her about what happened the day of the earthquake. She told us that she had just finished her daily routines and was dressing her five-month-old son Muhammad Rian when she felt the ground swinging. After the earthquake, she chose to stay in the tents because she is afraid it would happen again. She was breastfeeding her baby as she shared this experience. Ibu Wiji told us that she has breastfed her baby since he was born but, around three months ago, she also started giving him instant baby food because he cries a lot.

She lost everything to the earthquake and now has limited access to clean water, and so can no longer give instant food to her baby. Now he's getting breastmilk from his mother when he needs it, just like it's supposed to be. According to Ibu Wiji, she's not feeling any difficulties to breastfeed her baby, even though she's only eating rice and instant noodles since the disaster struck. When we gave her information about breastfeeding in emergency situations, she agreed with the message about the dangers of giving formula to babies. She also still remembered the information she had seen on television, that many babies got diarrhea after the earthquake in Jogjakarta three years ago. Those babies had been fed donated formula.

Based on the data we got from local health facilities, there are about 600 babies affected by this disaster. Some of them already infected by acute respiratory infections and conjunctivitis, since this is dry session and there is dust everywhere. Local health staff are afraid there will be cases of malnourishment, and this made them distribute donated baby biscuits intended for infants between 12-24 months of age. Unfortunately, with unclear information and improper distribution to babies younger than this, these biscuits have actually made some infants even sicker.

Surprisingly, there were no journalists or TV reporters here in Garut Selatan to give live reports about the situation. Not many of the survivors complained that they were suffering. Some of men had already begun helping each other to clean the debris of their houses. Women were gathering to talk with each other. Near the tents we visited in the Pameng Peuk sub-district, some mothers even cooked together in front of a house that withstood the earthquake, preparing the food to break the Ramadan fast.

“Please, take our picture,” said one of the women. Many of those we met even said thank you when we left.

We are very touched by their kindness. Even though they are not in the most pleasant situation, they accepted us with smiles. They openly shared their experiences during earthquake and, every time we asked about their families, they said ALHAMDULILLAH — "praise to God."

But these survivors, especially the mothers with babies under six months of age, do need support for breastfeeding their babies. We can offer support for breastfeeding mothers in emergency situation by conducting short training for local health center staff and community leaders, to help them understand the advantages of breastfeeding for infants and young children. We must also stress the importance of complementary feeding and provide trained lactation counselors to motivate mothers.

Mercy Corps, through the Healthy Start program, is committed to creating supportive environment for breastfeeding in any situation — including the earthquake-devastated villages of Garut Selatan.