Days before the 2004 tsunami struck, Marlina was sent a plane ticket from her sister Tharsiah to visit her and their parents in their hometown, Banda Aceh. Her plane was due to leave Jakarta on December 30. Four days before the plane came, the tsunami hit. Banda Aceh was the second worst affected area after Aceh Barat.
Desperate for news of her family, Marlina decided to take the plane and visit Banda Aceh as planned. With the huge number of aid agencies trying to reach Aceh, Marlina’s plane was delayed by nine hours. She arrived in the early hours of the morning to total devastation.
“I arrived on December 31, 2004, and wanted to try and find a taxi to take me into town,” she said.
“I went outside, and saw many dead bodies around the airport.”
Marlina managed to find a motorcycle taxi to take her into town, and, after an hour of looking, she traced some of her family, who were staying with relatives eight kilometres away in the highlands, where the tsunami had not reached.
“My parents’ house was severely damaged by the tsunami and the worst was there was no way to get to my sister Tharsiah’s house in the coastal area. We later found out their house had been swept away, along with Tharsiah and her family.”
Earthquake shocks were still ongoing, so Marlina stayed only one night in Aceh before she took her family further south to Medan. They stayed there for two months, trying to come to terms with what had happened. Three days into their stay, they got a phone call to say one of Tharsiah’s daughters, Ullaya, had been found.
She was only nine at the time but was very bright and articulate, so had been interviewed by the local newspaper and photographed.
Local people had recognised her and contacted Marlina’s mother with the news so they could be reunited.
Ullaya had been caught up in the torrent of water but had managed to survive by clinging to a piece of wood floating in the tsunami wash.
Marlina decided she needed to do something to help.
She applied for a job at Islamic Relief and started her administrative role that February, quickly moving to the orphaned children programme where she was tasked with identifying and supporting Acehnese children.
She said: “I joined Islamic Relief at the end of February 2005 and arrived in Aceh on March 1. Things were already getting better, there were no more dead bodies around. People were living in tents and makeshift shelters, and food and water were being handed out by Islamic Relief and some other aid agencies.
“It was very hard. The orphans were scattered in many places. They’d lost everything. I saw so many children who were homeless and had no families. It was 10 years ago, but remembering it all brings back how difficult it was.”
Temporary boarding houses had been hurriedly set up to take in orphans and those who had lost their homes and family, and Marlina visited them to do the assessment. It was overwhelming to see how so many needed help.
“They could sleep and eat there, but there was no schooling at that time,” she said.
“One room, designed for eight to 10 orphans, would be occupied by between 30 and 45 children with very limited bedding.”
She worked with children orphaned by either the tsunami or the conflict that had lasted 30 years. In a month, she assessed 300 children, later placing them with extended family, and funding their basic needs and education through Islamic Relief’s One-to-One Orphan Sponsorship programme.
She said: “We also arranged picnics and summer camps. They were psychosocial interventions. I learned so much about psychosocial work and children at that time. You could see that the conflict orphans were different to the tsunami orphans. Conflict orphans had often seen their parents being killed. Tsunami children were faster to heal even though conditions were hard.”
Marlina, helped by an Islamic Relief volunteer, went from shelter to shelter looking for orphans and finding them somewhere better to live. For the first year, the team would deliver money for food and education door to door. Then in around 2006, the banks began to operate and money could be distributed more easily.
“They were so thankful for the help Islamic Relief could give,” said Marlina.
“In 2005 and 2006, Islamic Relief was very successful to be able to distribute the donations to so many beneficiaries. In 2007, infrastructure started improving and coordination between organisations started getting better, then the focus shifted from the emergency phase to the development phase, building schools and hospitals and planning for the future.”
Her niece Ullaya, who was supported by Islamic Relief’s One-to-One Sponsorship scheme , is now 19 and has become a cheerful teen who makes friends easily and is no longer traumatised. She is supported by her grandmother, Marlina and the rest of their family.