The Digital Journalist
No Lie
February 2005

by Delvi Sinambela

"What are you doing here?" A little boy stood near the mass grave of thousands victims washed by tsunami. He was alone. "I want to say good bye to mother."

There, somewhere in the mountain of human bodies was a heart that this little boy had come home to when he feared the world outside. Naked and afraid, he would have to say farewell. There in Desa Bada just outside of Banda Aceh, the boy, already lost in tears, watched the big excavator drag bodies to a big hole that was now the grave of his mother and another 16 thousand people more. I did not dare ask his name.

The whole city smelled like death. "Death seemed more real for us still living here!" said an Aceh man next to me. It should be real I thought. I had known death here before this; Aceh is the land of perpetual conflict and distrust, where bullets are the angel of death. But no one ever thought that it would not be bullets that killed more than a hundred thousand people in just seconds. It was water; black water that carried away of concrete, woods, people's homes, and crumbles of history.

A boat stranded in downtown Banda Aceh, almost 6 km from the beach.

TransTV/Darmawan Eko
Allahuakbar! Allahuakbar! God is great they said with tremble. What had happened here? "Oh, my wife! My son... my daughter... I left them at the house." Then the water slapped their bodies, it carried them, it filled their lungs, blinded their eyes, it ripped their clothes, untangling the hands trying to hold their loved ones.

"I had her in my hands, but then the wave took her away. I saw her vanished in the blackness of water. Please, don't ask me about my family anymore." A father survived. A daughter died. The story goes.

I remembered on the first day when the news broke. Not even 12 hours after the quake, BBC news reported 9 thousands people counted dead. I shouted there at the news room, "Bull! That can't be right!" But it was no lie.

"I lost 41 in my family." "I lost 10 people." "I am alone now." Day by day I carried on listening to the living in search of their lost loves; while my eyes and nose carried on with visions and smells of rot.

People left homeless in Banda Aceh

TransTV/Darmawan Eko
Days counted; deadlines met. I became used to it until I could not really feel. I got by, eating a little piece of chocolate bar a day during the first week, but my grief grew with the images of people surviving up in the hill, starving. They say journalists should witness and report; not cry. But how should you not. The only way is to kill your heart while you shoot your footage, interview the survivors hoping for their tears, feed the story, report it live from the spot, again and again.

It was really hard during the first week, when the only way to communicate was by satellite phone. It was almost telepathy just to manage a live report from Banda Aceh that time. We were busy getting the connection done while a refugee sat there in the hot chair for a conference with the studio.

"What the frequency again?" Jakarta headquarters shout.

"4014 Mhz, symbol rate 6000." Oh God, should I repeat this again and again. Then, we go live.

It was always like that; you have the tears, we have the screen. Let's get this thing over with and let me go outside again. Another show's done, and another story to go. There goes another feed from Aceh, the land with so many tales of grief.

I survived the guilt by wishing that somehow, someway our reports could open people's eyes so they can open their hearts. Just a little help, just a little hand would do.

Three weeks later, I came home to Jakarta headquarter. Everything seemed normal, except the billboards now carried the sign said Peduli Aceh, it means care for Aceh. I just hope they won't get bored and forget. Just as always, it was headlines and the first segments of a newscast... then it slides and somehow gone. I remembered a sign in a building near Lambaro just north of Banda Aceh saying, Jangan Tinggalkan Aceh! It means don't leave Aceh. I just pray... a survivor pray that the helping hands would stay. Because I can leave, yet the people of Aceh had to stay.

© Delvi Sinambela

Delvi Sinambela is an associate producer in the News Division of TransTV Indonesia. She prepares the live event coverage from the field and also shoots, reports, and does technical production. She covered the Tsunami aftermath in Aceh as a field coordinator on with a team of 12 people.

Dispatches are brought to you by Canon. Send Canon a message of thanks.