We’re continuing with excerpts from Hearts across the Water. This collection is a memoir from the year 2005 and three events that shook the world: the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
I was part of a Louisiana medical team that landed in Indonesia about eighty days after the earthquake/tsunami.
Chapter 4 : The Silent City
Our medical team, working in Sumatra for two weeks, made daily visits to at least two clinics.
These were displaced centers for those who had survived the tsunami and were just trying to survive before deciding to rebuild.
Our team leaders who had been in the country for years would tell us before we left for that day’s clinic, “Today you’ll be up on the mountainside in an older village.”
Or, “This one is the farthest out. You’ll see monkeys in the trees there.”
But as they talked of our upcoming visit to Lampuuk they said, “It’s the one where there aren’t any children. It is the silent city.”
As we arrived at most clinic locations a huge rush of children met us.
They had figured out we would have crayons, coloring books, candy, and even toys from America. We quickly learned not to hand any of this out until we were ready to leave.
Even then it was a chore to hold them back.
Mothers would be in our face gesturing and speaking fast in Achenese saying that their children had gotten left out on the candy allotment.
But no laughing children or arguing mothers greeted us in Lampuuk.
There was an eerie silence there that said more than any words could have ever spoken.
The children were gone.
Most of the sad-faced men present there had lost everything, including their precious families.
Out of a thriving village of 10,000, only 600 people survived the tsunami.
Saddest of all, only six children survived.
This included the two children of the Simeulue lady who ran through the streets trying to warn others. When no one would listen, she loaded her children in a car and rushed them to safety ahead of the first wave. Our clinic at Lampuuk left a deep impression on all of our team. We became silent ourselves and talked in lowered voices as if in a cemetery.
Looking around at the hundreds of white foundation slabs in every direction, we knew we were in the presence of a great flood of death had occurred.
I remembered the words of an old country preacher at our cemetery in Dry Creek: “We’ve come today to the city of the dead. This is as far as we can go before we lower this body into the ground.”
Looking around at the white grave markers and tombstones it did resemble a city.
A city of the dead.
A silent city.
That is exactly how Lampuuk looked and felt.
A silent city.
Once alive, but now empty.
Later the following weekend our team had Sunday off, so we each had time to do what we pleased.
For some reason I wanted to return to Lampuuk. I felt this strange need to be at this village once more. The motorcycle taxi driver looked strangely at me as I requested a ride to Lampuuk.
There are few people living there now.
That sunny day there were only a handful of men.
Most are gone, lost.
I’m sure others have left never to return . . . too many bitter memories. I spent the afternoon walking the empty streets and along the beach. I stopped where a golf course had been on the outskirts of town.
I remembered one of the aid workers who lost a friend playing golf on that fateful morning.
I couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel to be standing here, golf club in hand, seeing the great wave approaching.
I found a shady spot under one of the few surviving trees and spent the afternoon just sketching, painting, and thinking.
I painted a simple watercolor picture of what I felt like Lampuuk would look in the future:
With houses, and gardens, and bright colors again. And best of all with children running and playing and laughing. The painting was not really great but it came from my heart.
In pencil I wrote on it: To the village of Lampuuk.
May the ocean once again be your friend.
May your streets be filled again with laughing children.
Before leaving Lampuuk I took it to a group of young men sitting on the porch of a makeshift store.
They shared a bottle of water with me and I shared my painting with them as we attempted to visit.
They knew no English and my phrasebook was inadequate for what I wanted to say. In fact, any language was inadequate for what I wished to say to them.
I had no words anyway. So I just left them the picture.
They passed it around with many comments and gestures.
One of them tacked it up on the wall of the little store.
My own gesturing and pointing probably couldn’t convey my prayers and good wishes for them.
But I’m sure someone came along later and explained the English writing.
I hope they understand it and the heart it came from.
I hope it is still tacked up somewhere years later when the streets of the silent city of Lampuuk are once again filled with the sounds of laughing children.