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SurfAid International Mission Central, Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia - Wednesday 2 February, 2005
- Kirk Willcox

Australian surf charter skipper Mark Coleman returned from Nias island recently on board his 52-foot sloop, the Nusa Dewata. After the Mentawai surf season wound up late last year, Mark, 46, had returned to his hometown of Bondi, Sydney.

Marc Coleman
Mark Coleman with the Nusa Dewata, the Barrenjoey and the Indies Trader II in the background. All three boats have been heavily involved in the SurfAid medical relief mission

But, like all of us, he was stunned by the tsunami images on television that rolled through from 26 December. As someone who has spent 27 years of his life in Indonesia, Mark instinctively knew he had to return to help. These are his people as much as Australians are. “I had a moral obligation,” Mark said matter-of-factly.

He phoned his mate Martin Daly, of the Indies Trader Co, and asked if he could help. Martin is a man of few words. “Get up here now. We need you.” Mark was at Sydney Airport the next morning.

The surf season here is basically March to November and when it ends, the boats are dry-docked for necessary repairs and maintenance.

The Nusa Dewata is a traditional sloop which Mark had built by the renowned Indonesian boat craftsmen, the Bugis, in Nusa Lembongan, the small island off Bali, 17 years ago. Mark’s boat had already been stripped of tanks and its luxuries, like beds, toilet, shower … ready to check for any leaks and those one million-plus tasks that boats require. But he called his Indonesian crew and instructed them to get it ready to sail in a few days. On 10 January, the Nusa Dewata steamed to Nias island, a 48-hour voyage as she only chugs along at six knots.

On board were two New Zealand doctors, Dr Marc Shaw and Dr Tom Mulholland, 30 boxes of medical supplies and some media who were going to go back to their various countries with images of the relief work to stir up more fundraising.

At the west coast Nias town of Sirombu, Mark hired a motorbike to search for the sick and injured inland, scouting for the medical team. In what had been the village of Desa Sisarahili II, he found a middle-aged man, Aspirasi Gulo, sitting in the dirt, crying. Aspirasi was reading his Bible that was written in Bahasa Nias, the local language of the Nias people.

SurfAid doctor Sohrab Gollogly took this photo of Aspirasi sitting in what had been his village. "He was emotionally a wreck, sitting on a log and scratching the dirt," said Dr Gollogly. "He said: 'I've lost everything here.'
"There wasn't a sound in the jungle. No birds chirping, just quiet, and plenty of debris with one guy sitting in a ruined village. We took him two 10 kg sacks of rice, two survival buckets which carry a range of items, and some cooking oil."

A Quarter of the Village Killed
Sisarahili is the village on a rivermouth one and a half kilometers inland from the coast that had been totally wiped out by the tsunami. The mass of water killed more than 100 of the villagers, a quarter of its population.

“Aspirasi was alive but he had no sign of life in his face,” Mark said. “I’ve never seen a blank look on a face like that. It was the first real impact I had after arriving at Nias and it was the most sobering moment of my whole life.

“His face said everything. I realized I was seeing the face of the tsunami right there. And in that moment, I realized that’s why I had come here, and that I could help.”

Mark said the village was so devastated that Aspirasi couldn’t even tell him where his house had been. “Of nearly 40 houses, each with a family of 10, there was nothing. Two churches were gone, and 89 people had died in one of them only 200 meters from where he was sitting. They had fled there in fear after they felt the earthquake because it’s the biggest support they know – the pastor and the church.

“He was just trying to find his ‘barang’ – what was left of his family’s possessions. He had a wife and children, and somehow they’d all survived.”

Aspirasi was the only one of the villagers who had returned. “Everyone else was too scared. He walked in to what had been his village every morning, spent the whole day there looking for his possessions, and walked out the four kilometers again each evening to return to the displaced persons camp inland at Mandrehe.”

The wave, which Mark said was eight meters (26 feet) high, had roared through the jungle before unleashing its awesome fury on the helpless villagers. “It’s so dense that you can’t walk through unless there’s a track. At eight meters up there was not one green coconut left on any tree. The wave was that high. All I saw were concrete slabs that used to be foundations of houses.”

Fishing Boat
The tsunami destroyed hundreds of fishing boats on Nias with numerous fishermen still too scared to go back to sea. Photo: Mark Coleman

The School Hat
That first day they met, Mark stayed with Aspirasi for six hours, talking to him in Indonesian, and crying with him - “I put my arm around him and hugged him as we talked.”

Mark asked Aspirasi to take him down to the rivermouth as he needed to survey it to see if they could get supplies in from the boat.

“He took me there, even though he was terrified of going near the water. He was looking over his shoulder towards the ocean the whole time, expecting another wave to come over the top; he was that paranoid. But while walking there, I realized there was no one to deliver to as the whole village had been moved further inland.

“At every concrete slab Aspirasi pointed and told me how many people had died there – four here, two there, three there, all his friends and neighbors. There was clothing and hats strewn about and one hat that really struck me. It had a girl’s name, Debora. It was the hat she wore to school every day. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”

Mark saw the complete devastation on the river and promised Aspirasi he’d come back the next day. “There were coconut trees half a kilometre out to sea, standing there, which used to be the coast. I asked him why the trees were standing out there and he said that’s the beach.

“I said: ‘That’s not the beach.’ But he told me there had been a beach there that was 400 meters out off the coast that no longer existed. Another church on the coast on the rivermouth took the full brunt of the impact and every family there was lost. All that was left were the foundations. Maybe 50 people died there – the first people taken out in that area. The energy of that wave must have been awesome.”

The ruined remains of the church at Sisarahili where 90 people died after it was smashed by the tsunami. Photo: Mark Coleman

The Unknown
Sirombu has a peninsula that juts into the ocean and its thought that the wave refracted around the point and collided with itself before roaring into the jungle. I sailed in there last week on a local Padang boat, the Santa Lucia. Its difficult to comprehend the way the tsunami smashed into certain parts of the coast, wreaking incredible damage and loss of life, while just down the beach, only some of the coastal strip was ripped away, with the tell-tale burning of the underbrush from the salt.

“It had obviously been a beautiful area where people lived on the coast,” Mark said. “They had the typical Niasian-style houses with shutters and manicured lawns with potplants, just like we have at home. They were poor but they had pride in their home and whatever possessions they had, and that was reflected in the people’s houses that were left. The lawns were that manicured, you could have putted a golf ball on them.

“There was one house still standing that showed that, and then I turned to my right and there was nothing but devastation. I talked to the ibus, the local women, for about an hour. They told me about the wave and said they had survived because they heard it coming through, they saw people running up the track, and they ran. Their house was still intact with no damage because it was higher but 100 meters to the right was completely devastated.”

As he had promised to Aspirasi, Mark came back the next day with the doctors and captain Oliver Langley from the Barrenjoey. “I wanted Olli, as a fellow mariner, to see the impact first-hand. It totally blew him away. As mariners we assessed the impact – the wave height, the volume, the science of it – not just the emotion. Olli had already been on Nias for two weeks, he was one of the first surf charter boat captains on the ground, and it was a totally sobering experience for him, for both of us.

“When we went back, there was no one there again except for Pak (Mr) Aspirasi. He couldn’t believe that I had come with help but I’d promised him I would. He came back to the rivermouth with us to show the doctors so they could get a feeling of what had actually happened and they were in total awe. But because everyone had been relocated to the displaced camp we went there and the doctors started treating people and helping them. They treated nearly 100 people that day at the relief clinic at Mandrehe. And the next day SurfAid set up a major medical program there.

“Aspirasi said that he didn’t know what he was going to do. Because his family had survived he said they weren’t eligible for Government assistance to re-build.

“And he was totally scared that another wave would come. Oliver Langley and I couldn’t assure him that that wouldn’t happen, because it’s an unknown.”

For hotlink for the Quiksilver Foundation Nias Fund click here.