From one of Indonesia’s earthquake and tsunami affected areas, *Annisa, mother to two children, recounts the moments when life froze for her little daughter and for herself – for five full minutes.

It was just another day, an uneventful afternoon. Annisa had put two-year-young *Alya down for her evening nap inside the house. Alya’s elder sister was playing in the neighbourhood. With Annisa working outside the house and her husband working in the field, Alya was on her own inside. Sound asleep.

With fear in her eyes, Annisa recalls the first few moments when the earth started shaking. As a child you learn that the land on which you stand is perhaps the only firm thing in the world and you learn to trust it. That is, until you are hit by an earthquake. Firstly, there was disbelief and then Annisa ran to the house. All gone in less than a minute.

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake that hit Sulawesi in Indonesia on 28 September and the tsunami it triggered left over 2080 people dead. Authorities warn that with many people missing, the death toll will likely climb much higher.

By the time Annisa reached her front door, all that was left of the house was a mess of rubble. Buried somewhere beneath was her baby girl, Alya. Annisa screamed for help until she soon realised everyone in the village was screaming. The monster earthquake spared no-one.

Annisa frantically started digging. Just with her bare hands. She knew where Alya was sleeping, but there was a small mountain of rubble there and no trace of Alya beneath it. Armed only with grit and a mother’s fierce instinct, she kept digging.

“My life froze for the next few minutes” Annisa told me. “The next five minutes felt like hours.” Then she saw Alya’s body and pulled her free. Alya was not moving…not breathing. Annisa screamed loud, praying. And then, as if by a miracle, Alya started crying.

Annisa told me that Alya screams in her sleep and wakes up from nightmares. “She is worried that it will happen again,” she says. Aftershocks can be incredibly nerve-racking for young minds. Old ones too, I can vouch for that.

Accidental heroes

As someone working in disasters and war settings, I have heard perhaps a hundred stories of grit and heroism. In such frontlines where people encounter hostile forces – natural events, extreme weather, militia, mobs or microbes – stories of valour inevitably emerge. Faced with such threats, humans will fight or flee, succumb or overcome. Either way, they will adapt.

Last month, I was working in Kerala, South India, when it was hit by the worst flood in 100 years. Local fishermen rushed with their boats and saved thousands of people from the submerged villages.

One common thread I notice in such settings is that it’s always the local people who are the first responders. Sometimes they are the only responders.

Mothers like Annisa, or local volunteers and teachers fighting the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or local nurses, doctors and paramedics in war-torn Yemen; they are all ordinary people doing an extraordinary job.

Small victories

While waiting for her turn to receive relief materials on the outskirts of Palu, another mother, *Fathima, told us her story. Her house has been destroyed. During the first three days, Fathima and her children and other community members lived on roasted tomatoes. Roads were damaged and blocked and limited relief was available. Water was in short supply. When the relief did begin to arrive, they realised all their cooking utensils were damaged.

Fathima and her friends had a community saving scheme in which they would collect a kitty of funds and draw straws. Winner takes all. However, this month there is no single winner. The women took a collective decision not to draw straws this month and rather use the money to buy pots and pans to set up a community kitchen. They have been cooking in the kitchen since the earthquake. This month, everyone wins.

*Adelia, Fathima’s five-year-young daughter, never leaves her mother’s side. She says she wants to go to school but the school in her village is all but destroyed. She prays school will restart soon.

I ask her what her favourite lesson is. “I like poems!” says Adelia with a shy smile. I ask her to sing a song and she sings one almost every child in Indonesia knows,” Rainbow Rainbow….you are so beautiful…red yellow green… on the blue sky…. A child’s enchanting imagination, as ever, unwavering.

I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up? “A doctor,” she says without hesitation. Aspirations of children, hope, and an idea of collaboration are powerful catalysts to help communities recover from monster disasters.

Mother nature’s plaything

Remember playing with Lego as a child? Building little houses of red and yellow and blue plastic bricks?

Imagine building a Lego village. A sprawling village across a rug on your living room floor. Imagine the village is a real place where children, families and animals live.

Now imagine someone pulling the rug from under the village.

That’s what it looks like has happened in parts of Sulawesi. The pretty city of Palu has had the rug pulled from beneath it, leaving over 70,000 people displaced. Not to mention the dead. So many people swallowed up by the shifting earth that they’ve given up counting.

Officials say that the tsunami hit with a speed of 800 kilometres per hour. To give perspective, this speed is like going back and forth between London and Paris in one hour.

When I walked around Sulawesi, I saw destruction everywhere. Houses, schools and hospitals in ruins. Landscapes reconfigured. Lives changed for ever.

People like Annisa have lost everything – except hope. And they are fighting back with grit. That is a good start to rebuilding their lives. I only hope the world is compassionate and generous enough to help them.

*Names changed

Dr Unni Krishnan (@unnikru) is Director Emergency Health Unit, Save the Children, a partner organization of Yayasan Sayangi Tunas Cilik (YSTC). YSTC is providing humanitarian assistance for children and other survivors impacted by the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi.

An edited version of this blog/OPED/ eye-witness account also appeared on Save The Children Blog: https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/blogs/2018/grit-luck-and-motherly-love

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