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Destruction Visible and Invisible: An Ebola Responder Remembers the Tsunami

Home > Learn More > Stories & News > Destruction Visible and Invisible: An Ebola Responder Remembers the Tsunami
By Christine Ennulat, Content Manager
Posted on 12/22/2014

As told to Christine Ennulat, Content Manager

Davidson Jonah, field operations support director for ChildFund, is now overseeing our Ebola response in West Africa. Ten years ago, he was part of Christian Children’s Fund’s tsunami emergency effort in Aceh, Indonesia, one of the hardest-hit regions. We asked him what he recalled from that experience and how it informs his work today. These are his own words.

When I landed in Aceh, I saw the devastating situation right away. The first thing they took me to see was a mass grave where tens of thousands of people were buried. I said, “OK! Let’s get going!”

We went to the office, and everybody was busy. There were more than 400 staff. I thought, where do I start? I went straight to the security guard and said, “Hello, I’m here to work with you!” He said, “OK!”

David and Jonah

The other places they showed me were places of big destruction. One place where I always loved to go in the evening was a place where a barge had been picked up from the sea and deposited in the middle of the community. Trees were still standing, so I thought, “Did the water really move this barge all the way down here – past all of these palm trees?” It was a very fascinating situation.

In some parts of the community, everything was wiped away. But when you traveled to the other islands, there was not as much destruction.

I reflected back to Sierra Leone, which has the Atlantic on one side and mountains on other side, I imagined the people in their small houses among the mangroves, and I thought, these people are not thinking of disasters.

There are stories of those who found themselves in the coconut trees and climbed down when the waters receded. Colleagues had lost family members. Starting about three months after I got there, there would be two, three weddings a month. As I listened to the staff tell their stories in the English classes we had organized, I would think, “How did they survive it all?”

At ChildFund’s office in Aceh, the cook who was responsible for cleaning and preparing lunch for the emergency response staff had lost her entire family. That was a very pathetic situation. I don’t know what has happened to her since then.

One woman who worked for us in the house where we stayed, cleaning and doing laundry — she had only a granddaughter, so she was now responsible for the granddaughter because the parents had been washed away. ChildFund helped her with school fees. Aceh was not a place where we had sponsorship, and we don’t have local partner organizations there now.

Our response was about both dealing with the direct impact of the tsunami and the issues manifesting as the situation began to turn around. A lot of children who lost parents were taken in by family members.

There was no schooling — schools were all closed or gone, so there were a lot of issues. You would fear for their safety. Sometimes you would see families of three or four riding on one scooter. The children didn’t have helmets. For small little boys, that was their hobby — dangerous rides on motor bikes.

After the tsunami, there were a lot of resources available, so the issue of looking out for resources was not such a problem.


The Difference Between Ebola and the Tsunami

A tsunami is not silent. The destruction was there, slapping you in the face. You could see the pictures, and people wanted to support the response. But Ebola is a silent killer. It’s very difficult to show pictures — you only hear about the deaths.

And that has impacted our response, because you don’t have many people who are willing to come here [to West Africa] and support it. It’s left with the people who already have been facing it for six or more months. You have to manage so you don’t get staff burnout, so you find yourself doing things that are beyond your role. When we wanted to start the Interim Care Centers, we had to train the staff so that they could train and provide orientation for people who had not done such work before. In contrast, after the tsunami, we had plenty of trained child protection staff [because so many aid workers had flocked to the region].

[In the Ebola response] You go into the community where the need is, and when you come back, you don’t know what you might have done [incorrectly]. You hear of doctors dying, and they’re supposed to be the experts. I go around with a non-contact thermometer, and I’m checking my temperature every two hours just to be sure my temperature isn’t rising.

Help Fight Ebola

A tsunami is not silent. It is there, slapping you in the face. You can see the pictures, and people want to support the response. But Ebola is a silent killer.

Davidson Jonah

In West Africa, an estimated 10,000 children have lost caregivers to Ebola. Many have nowhere to go. Help us fight Ebola and help the children it leaves behind.