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The Principal’s Tale

Lamnga Elementary School, in Aceh, Indonesia, was a hive of activity before the four-metre-high wave of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami roared 1.5 kilometres inland, reducing the school to a crumbled shell. Yet how does a principal, struggling to cope with the loss of two daughters – and nearly half his students - find the strength to rebuild a devastated school?

It was just a normal weekend for the now 54-year-old school principal Muhammad Saleh, as he busied himself making breakfast with his wife and three daughters.

When the family felt the earthquake on Sunday 26 December 2004 they went outside to see what was happening. Instantly, they realised that this wasn’t any other earthquake.

Panicked, they ran - Muhammad with his four year old daughter in his arms, while his other two daughters followed hand in hand. They ran five kilometres inland, but when the wave came, he was unable to keep hold of his four year old daughter and she slipped away.

“In that instant, it was as though my breath escaped me,” says Muhammad, tears trickling down his face, as he recalls that moment.

After two hours, Muhammad came across his neighbour. “I was told that my eldest daughter was safe in a tree, but the wave had separated her from my 13 year old daughter. My wife’s parents were also safe.”

As Muhammad continued to wade through the devastation, he stumbled across his wife. “She was badly injured and I was so disoriented when I saw her. I felt like a robot, stumbling blindly without a thought,” says Muhammad. 

Reunited, and with the knowledge that their eldest daughter was safe, they started to search for their two younger daughters.

“As I looked around, all I could see were victims of the tsunami – children and adults everywhere. I couldn’t find my daughters anywhere,” he says.

In the mosque, they prayed for their daughters, until a neighbour picked them up to search another village. The day after the tsunami, Muhammad’s wife went to the hospital to have her wounds treated. Muhammad continued his search, knowing his wife was in a safe place.

After that, Muhammad went about his days feeling numb and the pain is still clear to see.

“Up until today, I have been unable to find the bodies of my two daughters,” he says. “My wife is still traumatised and she refuses to go back to our old house, so now we stay in a house that was given to us by an NGO.”

Muhammad Saleh is committed to supporting children in Aceh to get an education.

Aceh, Indonesia, located at the northern tip of Sumatra, bore the brunt of the tsunami. In Indonesia, an estimated 130,700-plus were killed, while there are 37,000 missing, 565,384 internally displaced and 199,766 houses destroyed or damaged.

The past ten years have been difficult for Muhammad and his family.

While he was grieving for the loss of his two daughters, he had to return to the devastated school, where he had been principal since 1999.

A temporary school was erected in the immediate aftermath, while he and his students worked with child rights organisation Plan International to design their dream school.

Rebuilding their lives

Amrullah Amrullah, Child Protection & Participation Programme Advisor, from Plan International in Indonesia, was posted as chief of mission for the child-rights organisation’s emergency response at the time:

“When I arrived in Lamnga, they told me this empty area used to be a school and that the local community wanted Plan to rebuild this school. As a child-rights organisation, we wanted to do everything we could to ensure children were able to return to school and to support Muhammad. We grouped the children together and asked them to design their dream school. They drew what they wanted and they told me they wanted to have separate bathrooms. They wanted their school to be resilient and earthquake-proof and we tried to incorporate their ideas as much as we could.”

 In May 2005, six months after the tsunami, their new school was opened.

“We used to have 207 students here at Lamnga - when we reopened there was just 115,” says Muhammad. “Both students and teachers were given counselling and support by Plan. They taught us new skills including how to help students come to terms with what had happened. After returning to school, I also encouraged the teachers to be spirited.  I told them it wasn’t necessary to go straight back to the curriculum and that it was OK to read fun stories to them. It took time, but we all slowly got back to normal.”

Children in Aceh after they returned to school.

Returning to school

Former students Megawati, 18 and Yusran, 17 – were both happy to return to Lamgna Elementary School once it was rebuilt.

After the tsunami, Megawati had to live in the hills for five months and she was so grateful to be able to return to school. “When I came down, I didn’t go directly to my house. I went to a school in another province, but it was difficult to concentrate on my studies. After a few months, I was able to go back to school. I was so happy. To me, school is very important, because without education we do not know anything.”

Yusran, who now studies engineering, felt the same. “While I was at the temporary school, children used to bully me and they would ask why I was there. I was happy when I learnt my school had been rebuilt.”

Life today

Nowadays, the brightly painted Lamnga Elementary School is rich with laughter and activity. Young school children run around the playground, shouting, talking and jumping over looped together elastic bands, while they are taught regularly about the dangers of disasters and where to evacuate to if another strikes.

Cahaydi was just two years old when the tsunami tore his village apart. “I lost my sister,” he says. “She was only three. My grandmother was carrying her to safety, but both of them fell and she was unable to keep hold of her.”

Now 12, he lives with his mother and father and is a keen student at Lamnga School. He also knows what to do if an earthquake or tsunami strikes again.

 “At school, we are taught about where to evacuate if a disaster strikes and how we can help one another. We have also been taught to hide under a table if an earthquake strikes. I feel better prepared because of these classes and I can also tell my friends what to do,” he says.

The tsunami still haunts him though – as well as others. “I am ready, but I cannot imagine another tsunami, as I still feel scared when I think about it,” says Cahaydi.

As for Muhammad, he is proud of the way his school has been rebuilt. He is also flush with pride when he talks about his eldest daughter. Now 25, she is a mother to a little boy and recently graduated with a Masters degree.

While the scars are still there to see, Muhammad, his family and his students, have rebuilt their lives as best they can – and thanks to him, and with the support of Plan, the children of Aceh have been given the opportunity to return to a school, designed by them, just for them, so they too can achieve their hopes and dreams.