The Digital Journalist
Boby's World

by Amy Marash

A 20-hour flight to Singapore, a missed connection in Jakarta and a short hop through Medan, brought me to Indonesia. I found my fixer (or he found me) at the airport in Banda Aceh. Oki agreed to help me find aid workers and refugees rebuilding their lives in the tsunami zone, and translate conversations on my first trip, ever, to Asia.

Boby's tent. His possessions, donated by an Australian relief agency, fit in his backpack.

photo by Amy Marash
Oki drove me to the Sulthan Hotel, reopened after the tsunami, He said he had been in the car with his two-year old nephew when the biggest wave came ashore: With water quickly nearing the top of the car, he cranked the window, grabbed the toddler and escaped into the sea water. He hung on to a tree with the child until suddenly the baby was pulled from his arms and sucked under.

"After a minute I saw something in the water," said Oki. It was his nephew. He grabbed the boy, who threw up a gut-full of tsunami and lived.

Oki had been a news photographer until the tsunami. Now, with his camera gear gone, he was reporting for the LA Times, and fixing for whomever.

When I picked up my key at the Sulthan, the night manager tried to tell me something I couldn't understand. I wanted to eat and sleep, so I could find my story in the morning.

Gurawan, Nurjahi, and Deni, lost their mother, father, sister, and brother to the tsunami. When Nurjani, suddenly the head of household at age 15, is asked whether she is sad or angry, she says only that she still has two brothers.

Photo by Amy Marash
A slow rolling earthquake woke Aceh at 7AM, but difficulties with the car made Oki late, and we missed the morning departures to the camps from World Vision and UNICEF. I interviewed relief workers and program managers, but I wanted to be with refugees. After a full day in Banda Aceh, in a state filled with displaced persons, I was still looking for one.

At the hotel the night clerk again tugged at my sleeve. My mother, he said. Another clerk and another guest began to translate.

On December 26, after the earthquake shook the seaside home he shared with his mother Zuraida and his brother Nofi, Boby Octavia, 30, decided to come right away to the Sulthan Hotel. "Stay here, I'm really afraid," said Boby's mother Zuraida, "Don't be too long." Those were her last words to Boby.

After a quick stop at the hotel, Boby headed home, into the wave. "I drove my motorcycle until I couldn't any more, and then I swam," the remaining 3 km home. Boby looked like he was smiling. "Many Acehnese people smile when they are sad," said the hotel guest.

The tsunami took Boby's home, carried off his brother Nofi, a 25-year old university student and their mother, Zuraida, a widow. "How old was your mother?" I asked Boby. "55." "Same as me," I said.

The next morning I was rid of my fixer, rid of my agenda, and riding on the back of Boby's motorcycle, in Boby's world. Joking around on a Saturday drive to Boby's tent in the refugee camp.

We rode to Boby's village of Blang Oi. Debris, boats in the wrong place. Smoke from fires. "Are you okay, Boby?" Boby was smiling.

Nothing, where seven rooms had been. "My bedroom," he said, stepping on bits of ceramic tile, cement and a shred of dark blue cloth. "My mother's room." "Bodies everywhere," said Boby, but not the ones he needs to bury; mother or brother. Boby's friend Hendra looked through 10 morgues and all the hospitals in the district.

Boby's World.

Photo by Amy Marash
Boby said he lost 22 pounds since the tsunami. "I take responsibility for leaving my family." He has not visited the trauma center set up for tsunami victims and he does not cry in front of others. "It was very hard to come back to work." Three months since the tsunami, how does he cope? "I believe in the Muslim religion. I try to depend on God." "I'm alive and I have to get to my future."

I have a friend in Banda Aceh, and the lead for my first story: Of the 4000 people who lived in the village of Blang Oi in Aceh province, Indonesia, only 470 survived. Boby Oktavia lost his mother, his brother, and his home. After three months of self-assigned guilt since the tsunami, this is Boby's world.

To read more about Boby's World go to

Amy Marash

AMY MARASH is a freelance journalist.

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