“Have you ever met one of your American Presidents? I met two on this beach.”

Chapter 5 : Henry



I met Henry among the ruins of Lampuuk on our first visit there. It had been over eleven weeks since the tsunami. Henry lived in a tent not far from the only remaining building in Lampuuk: the local Mosque. A handsome twenty-year-old with an infectious smile and wonderful personality, Henry quickly became the favorite among all of our medical team. He had excellent command of English as well as the widely spoken Basra Indonesian and the rarer Achenese dialect.


As we began to set up our medical clinic at Lampuuk, Henry came out of his tent to greet us. He seemed to be the official goodwill ambassador of the village. Henry had a cheerful, contagious smile that said, “I’ve been through a lot but I’m still standing. He also possessed a great pride that led him to question every American visitor with the same inquiry:


“Hey, have you ever met a president of your United States of America?”


Most of our replies were an honest, “No.”


Our new Indonesian friend would then break out into a wide grin and proudly say, “Well, I’ve shook hands with two of your presidents right here where we are standing. I visited with your presidents Bush senior and Clinton three weeks ago. We talked for over thirty minutes.” I could easily envision Henry schmoozing with our two leaders as they visited the Banda Aceh area earlier in February. I have no doubt he held his own in conversation with both of them.


Our team had earlier been told to meet Henry by a Los Angeles medical team that had befriended him and actually stayed overnight at his tent as guests.


As we visited, I asked Henry to show me where his house had been. We walked through the rubble and debris of what had once been a thriving village. He pointed to a nearby road and warned me not to cross past it. “That is rebel-controlled territory and the government cannot assure your safety past there.” He shrugged as if it was no big deal. I was once again reminded that we were not only in a disaster zone, but a war zone where the Free Aceh movement had battled with governmental troops for over a decade. Due to this ongoing revolution, martial law was in force.


In every direction the only reminders of human habitation were the cement foundation slabs swept clean by the waves. We finally came to the slab that had been Henry’s home. Then he began his story.


“On the morning of the earthquake everyone ran outside to look around. My dad and younger brother were with me. The shaking continued and was accompanied by a great deal of shouting and running around. When the message was passed around about the receding ocean and fish, many folks ran toward the ocean. For some reason, my father, brother, and I did not run. We simply stood there wondering what was next.


It was probably 10-15 minutes after the quake when we first heard it. You could hear the roar of the wave before you could see it. When we saw it coming everyone ran. My father and brother were behind me as we fled for our lives toward higher ground.”


As Henry spoke, he pointed off to a grove of tall coconut trees about one-half mile away. “That is where I was headed. The wave, it was actually three waves traveling together, was moving about 30 kilometers per hour- slow enough to outrun for a short distance. Looking back I saw my father and brother trailing farther behind me. When the wave washed over the Mosque it was about to there on its side.” Henry pointed to a spot about thirty feet high on the Mosque wall. Although it had stood, the entire Mosque was gutted and the stairwells had been torn away.


Henry continued as he pointed back toward the grove of trees, “The last I saw of my father and brother was when they were overtaken by the water. Eventually the water reached me and I frantically tried to run in it, and then swim. The debris being pushed along hindered free movement. I passed out and later awoke on higher ground near the trees. I have no idea how I escaped.”


Henry’s story and the way he so dispassionately told it touched me. It was as if he was describing a normal event or the happenings on another planet. I wondered how many times he had related his tale. Just because he told it without much emotion did not mean it was not burned deep into his soul. Here was a young man, the age of my sons, who had lost everything.


In the coming days we spent a great deal of time with Henry as he traveled with us to many of the clinics. He was great help with the older patients who spoke mainly Achenese. He would “interpret for the interpreters” as he translated the patient’s Achenese symptoms to the interpreter who translated it into English for our doctors.


I think back to the difficulty of starting the renovation of an area so utterly devastated. Then I think of Henry. He had an optimism that the storm had not washed away. A deep inner resolve that was evident and indicative of the Achenese people we met and grew to love.


The task of rebuilding northern Sumatra, just like our task now in New Orleans and throughout our part of Louisiana, is completely overwhelming. In Lampuuk that day very little rebuilding had been done, even after three months. I thought to myself, “How would you even know where to start?”


Then I think about the young people I met there- Henry and his wonderful smile and “can do” personality. I see the faces of Raihail and her student nurses. I think of Saeed our driver each day.


And Dedek, a young Indonesian who worked with us. Then there is Jenni, a vibrant young Indonesian from another part of the country, casting her lot with these Achenese to rebuild their lives and cities. Plus there will be countless others who will be called upon to rebuild their cities.


The new Lampuuk will be different. Just as the new New Orleans will be also different. And as always, it will be young minds, and young hearts, and innovative minds that lead the way.


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