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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | Features

Journey to Aceh

SPU Student Writes From the Heart of the Tsunami Disaster

About to begin Winter Quarter classes at Seattle Pacific University, junior Jared Wiley heard the news of the Asian tsunami and felt a sense of urgency. He knew exactly what he had to do: return to his adopted homeland of Indonesia to help with disaster relief efforts.

Jared Wiley sits in the rubble of what used to be a bustling city market. The scene, he says, is reminiscent of damage done by a powerful bomb.

The physical education major, raised by parents who serve with Mission Aviation Fellowship, left for the island of Sumatra in January. His trip was funded in part by donations from Seattle Pacific students and the University’s SPRINT organization.

With only a sleeping bag and a few changes of clothing, Wiley set out for a remote area in Aceh Province, hard-hit by the tsunami yet virtually ignored by news media. For 10 weeks, he stood as a brother with the citizens of Indonesia in their time of crisis. Here, he writes to the SPU community about his experiences.

Words fail to do justice to the destruction I’ve witnessed. But let me do my best to set the scene: Imagine a bomb exploding, leveling trees, houses — entire villages. What was once dry ground is now brown, murky swampland. The only life form that has thrived in spite of this disaster are the mosquitoes, and they’re swarming me now as I write. I returned to Indonesia in January 2005, answering a call on my heart to help tsunami victims rebuild their lives. There’s no job description for my work, so each day is different than the next: unloading airplane fuel drums, clearing airstrips, assisting with malaria testing, and rebuilding homes.

One day I was asked to help clear an unusually large heap of grass and plant matter that was blocking a roadway. It was like a big sponge, too thick to cut, too wet to burn, and far too heavy to move. Our only solution was to use a chainsaw and slowly pry away chunks. Picture this: a group of sweaty men in 100-degree heat, cutting and hacking their way through a heap of decaying vegetation. The icing on the cake? A huge ants’ nest uncovered in the center of the pit, with ants whose bites caused large, itchy welts.

Still, the chance to build relationships with the Indonesian people is worth every insect bite on my body. Shortly after I arrived, a local man wanted to give me something. On the spur of the moment, he climbed a tree and picked a coconut for me. This man lost everything in the tsunami — he didn’t even have shoes on his feet — and here he was, offering me a gift. Another day, villagers presented me with honeycomb and three fresh eggs. I was humbled by their generosity. While I am giving out of abundance, these people are giving out of poverty.

It’s hard for me to reconcile the beauty of creation with the destruction of creation. Every morning there is a gorgeous sunrise, and every night there is an equally brilliant sunset. I can only imagine what it would have looked like before the wave: lush, green fields of rice; beautiful beaches; and thousands of people who didn’t know they had seconds to live.

Everywhere there is a haunting reminder of the fragility of life, and with it comes the realization that the line between life and death is thin, at best. In town, a three-story girls dormitory still stands among the rubble. The girls on the top floor survived, while 150 of their friends in the lower floors perished.

And even though the sun rises each day just like it always has, the grief hangs around like a menacing rain cloud. I joined the local townspeople one afternoon as the village chief described his search for his missing wife. After six days of searching, he found her, recognizable only by her clothing and jewelry, about a mile inland. When the chief finished speaking, the whole village was weeping. Women cradled their children, and men hid their faces.

Yet in this ravaged region, I have seen more resilience, strength, and perseverance than anywhere else. Everywhere you look there are signs of hope. Here is a carpenter using recovered wood for his new house. There is a woman shaving coconut to use in her next meal. Down the road is a fisherman with his wife and daughters cleaning and drying the day’s catch, and a family using downed electric lines to hang their laundry.

I have come to realize two things since I’ve been here. The first might sound like an unlikely message in the wake of such a disaster: When you think about your life, which might be one of abundance like mine, don’t feel guilty. We should consider our blessings as exactly that, blessings. But the Word of God reminds us that, “to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

I can think of very little that is more satisfying than giving to those in need — or even to those who aren’t in need. To put it simply, we are to share what we have with those around us so that they can take part in those same blessings. It’s not that this is what we should do; it’s what we’re called to do.

As the media’s cameras pan out, more aid workers are leaving Southeast Asia than arriving. That worries me because this region is still in great need. And even though I have to return to Seattle, I’ll carry the stories of these people in my heart: the grieving women, the orphaned children, the village chief, and the man without shoes. I’ll think about them every day until I can return to Aceh.

Editor’s note: Jared Wiley returned to Seattle Pacific University in late March 2005, just in time for Spring Quarter classes and only days before another major earthquake rattled Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

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