The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 29, 2014


Getting the Big C in focus  


Cancer is a word, not a sentence, say survivors who know that the vile disease can be thrashed.  All that’s needed is the right treatment, limitless support layered with luck – and a powerful positive attitude.

Being confronted by a major task with a deadline also helps - like producing a book ahead of the 10th anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

“Publishing requires huge energy,” said New Zealand geomorphologist Dr Noel Trustrum as he red-inked text corrections and sorted page proofs in his hometown of Wellington.  He’d just returned from another ten-day high-tech radiation treatment in Auckland, 650 kilometers distant.

“But this has kept me going.  I’ve had no time to think about my cancer.”

There’s another factor in play: every page carries a story or picture of resilience and recovery from appalling tragedy, courage in crises and the determination to look ahead; the bigger picture shrinks individual problems.

Aceh Revives – Celebrating 10 years of Recovery in Aceh is a then-and-now account of what’s happened since the world’s third largest recorded earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, heaving the ocean floor and triggering a huge tsunami.

At least 230,000 people perished as a tidal wave up to 30 meters high smashed its way through coastal communities in several Indian Ocean countries. Aceh took the brunt; around 170,000 were killed and 500,000 of the province’s 4.5 million population were left homeless, jobless and landless.

The city of Banda Aceh was heavily hit.  In the book Imam Munandar recalls “a large black blanket creeping over the land” and his desperate, but unsuccessful search, for members of his family. 

Five weeks after the wave Dr Trustrum arrived on an assignment from NZ Aid to report on long-term needs. The small South Pacific nation had already provided emergency support and now wanted to help prevent further tragedies.

He’d been an irregular visitor to Indonesia on watershed management aid projects since 1988 but was unprepared for the “sensory overload” he encountered in early 2005.

“I soon became overwhelmed by the full force of sights, sounds and smells,” he wrote “It felt surreal to the point that I found myself being desensitised to the reality of the situation.”

Geomorphologists (“skin of the earth scientists”) are multi-discipline people who study landforms and the forces that shape them. Dr Trustrum, who’d originally trained as a geologist, had been selected because he was one of NZ’s leading specialists with more than 30 year’s experience in Europe, Japan, Vietnam and Pacific Islands.

In Aceh he met conservationist Mike Griffiths another Kiwi and long-term Indonesian resident.  He’d established the Leuser International Foundation in 1994 to protect the ecosystem around the 3,404-meter high Mount Leuser.

Griffiths knew his way around and had the right contacts.  By the time Dr Trustrum returned to his Wellington office in the government-owned company GNS Science where he worked as a senior development specialist, he already had the makings of a reforestation project to stabilize the land and provide security for farmers.

He also had gigabytes of photos, for he was a keen landscape photographer, a fascination developed during his teen years when his father had a darkroom.  The photos showed the devastation and led to a small book called Scars: Life after the Tsunami.

He’d kept the lens of his special panoramic camera mainly focused on the torn townscapes and ripped lands rather than the numbed and battered people struggling to understand what had happened. 

Three years later he organized a workshop on disaster risk management in Jakarta to celebrate 50 years of NZ-Indonesia diplomatic relations.  Also there was Indonesia’s famous Dr Fixit - Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, then director of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Aceh and Nias (BRR), now head of the President’s Delivery Unit. He suggested Dr Trustrum’s photos be published to commemorate the disaster.

Then fate intervened with a rare liver cancer.  He underwent a major operation that went wrong.  Doctors reckoned he’d last six months.. “But they didn’t know Noel,” said his wife Helen. “He’s determined.”

He recovered, but this year the disease reappeared – hence the radiation.

Despite these traumatic events he was determined to revisit Aceh in case the cancer made it impossible to travel.  With the help of translator Kadek Krishna Adidharma and photographer Udo von Mulert he set out to record the “inspirational stories” and reshoot the scenes recorded in 2005.

Supported by NZ Ambassador David Taylor, Dr Trustrum mustered eight corporate sponsors to back the 218-page book, which includes poetry from people like award-winning Bali midwife Robin Lim who also rushed to help in Aceh.

Aceh Revives, published by Saritaksu Editions in Bali (run by another Kiwi, Sarita Newson) will be launched at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in early October and then in Jakarta at the NZ Embassy.

“Rehabilitation is still a work in progress, but overall it’s pretty amazing,” Dr Trustrum said. “There’s now very little evidence of broken buildings though the fear remains. 

“Eight four-storey escape buildings have been built on pillars allowing waves to rush through the lower levels, but many houses would still be vulnerable if another tsunami hit.

“There’s also a huge need for a better evacuation strategy. In April 2012 there was another big quake; gridlock followed as people trying to get to higher ground were moving against those seeking to reach the escape buildings (pictured right) closer to the sea.

“It’s been a fulfilling exercise to discover the powerful untold stories of the recovery that demonstrate the ability of the human spirit to endure, recover and rebuild.

“This isn’t just about Indonesia.  It’s about what happened, how people coped, what’s going on now and the lessons learnt– this is of international importance.

“The resilience of the Acehnese people has inspired me to move beyond my own personal struggle for good health.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 September 2014)


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