JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 2, 2005 – As the team of relief workers arrived in the Indonesian village, they noticed villagers digging a hole.
Although Amy McCutcheon at first thought they were working on a mass grave, through crude translation she and her fellow workers determined that the hole was instead a latrine.
Relieved and anxious to help, McCutcheon and her teammates grabbed shovels and started working. They were excited that the Indonesians seemed ready to improve their village and get life back to normal.
But as the hours passed, body bags started to accumulate on the side of the road. She thought she was digging a latrine. She was wrong.
“We discovered we weren’t digging a latrine after all,” McCutcheon said. “We were digging a grave. We buried 15 people that day.”
So went McCutcheon’s first experience at the village of Suaktimah during her recent trip to Indonesia. A senior at Union University, McCutcheon and 14 others from Global Ministries Foundation in Memphis offered what little help they could to a village devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami that so far has claimed roughly 300,000 lives.
McCutcheon, of Germantown, decided in January she wanted to help in the relief effort. Many have chosen to help monetarily.
“I’m not financially able, as a college student, to give any money,” she said. “But I knew there had to be something I could do.”
She decided that while she might not have the money, she had the time. Because Union’s spring semester doesn’t begin until the first week of February, McCutcheon knew she had a timeframe where she could go to Indonesia herself. She relied on those with the money to fund her trip.
“Before I left I didn’t have all the money,” she said. “When I got back home, it was all there.”
McCutcheon spent the days prior to her departure collecting the supplies she would need. Team members took their own tents, their own food, their own water. She packed 10 days worth of provisions – granola bars, tuna fish, trail mix, peanut butter and crackers and Gatorade.
“I don’t even like tuna,” McCutcheon said. “But it got us through. I’m still here.”
She also spent those days preparing herself mentally and emotionally for what she knew would be a taxing experience. She discovered no amount of preparation would have been adequate.
Through travel delays and mix-ups, it took McCutcheon’s team three days to reach Indonesia. Immediately they were thrown a curve ball, as the village they had planned to visit was inaccessible because of flooded roads. That’s where the translator was. They would have to do without.
The team instead spent 16 hours in a van driving to the city of Meulaboh. It was dark when they arrived, so McCutcheon couldn’t see a lot.
“When we first came into the city, it was mostly earthquake destruction, not from the tsunami,” she said. “I thought this was going to be a more devastated area. When we got up the next morning we went into downtown Meulaboh, which as far as the eye could see was nothing but flat land – where resorts used to be, buildings – nothing but broken concrete.”
She could also smell the hint of dead bodies.
“They weren’t buried, but they weren’t exposed either,” McCutcheon said. “The bodies were only in places where debris hadn’t been moved yet. The only thing we saw were body bags.”
As she toured the leveled city, McCutcheon saw various evidences of a former way of life. A baby sandal here. A toothbrush there. A way of life now vanished. A city in ruins everywhere she looked.
“People used to live here,” she thought to herself. “As far as you could see there was nothing but – nothing. It was so big, I felt like there was no way I could help. It was so overwhelming. I’ve come all the way across the world, and now there’s nothing I can do. What can one person do to help this?”
Local leaders decided to send McCutcheon’s team to Suaktimah, a small village on the outskirts of Meulaboh. After she arrived, and after her grave-digging experience, McCutcheon found other examples of the horrors the people there faced.
She met a woman holding a young girl, no older than 18 months.
“What’s her name?” McCutcheon asked.
“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “I just found her.”
“That hit me hard,” McCutcheon said. “This little girl, maybe her mom’s looking for her. Maybe she’s not. How will they ever find each other? How will life ever get back to normal? It won’t.”
On the first day of their visit to Suaktimah, the workers discovered that the villagers there had done no rebuilding work at all. They were living under the sun and the stars.
“It was just too hard for them,” McCutcheon said. “They had no desire to do any kind of cleanup.”
But McCutcheon and her fellow workers were successful in injecting hope to a hopeless situation. During their stay, they helped the villagers round up needed supplies. They helped empty wells full of salt water, mud and debris and restore them to use.
They played soccer with the children. And eventually, they did help dig a latrine.
“We just lifted their spirits,” she said. “They were laughing. They were smiling.”
The village elder told McCutcheon and the team he hadn’t heard his people laugh in over a month. When they arrived, all the people could say was how hopeless and sorrowful they were.
But by the time the workers left, that outlook had changed considerably.
“In three days – that’s all we had with them – it went from complete despair to some kind of vision for a life,” McCutcheon said.
She said the trip gave her a love for the Indonesian people she encountered. Despite the gloom and the pessimism, the villagers wanted to express their gratitude to McCutcheon and her team.
“The last thing they wanted to do was cook dinner for us,” she said. “Out of the food that we had just given to them, they wanted to feed us. That blessed me. These people that had nothing wanted to give back to me.”
She wants to return soon, maybe as soon as March during spring break. When she does, McCutcheon expects to see a house, or a building, or some other proof that life is getting better for the villagers.
“When we left they were laughing, they were up and working, cleaning up their village, which they hadn’t been doing three days before,” she said. “So I left with hope that life was going to improve over there.”