A story from Jurnalis Perempuan Meliput Indonesia: 50 Kisah di Balik Berita (Women Journalists Cover Indonesia: 50 Stories Behind the News)

[Indonesia] The Power of Compassion in Disaster Reporting

Seventh-month-old Mohammad Rasya is smiling and laughing while playing with his mother, Sri Rahayu, oblivious to his surroundings.

“Home” for him and his family is a temporary shelter in Lulo Village, Biromaru, Sigi, in Central Sulawesi, where I met them on 27 November 2018 — a good two months since an earthquake struck their area.

Being situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Just a month earlier, Rasya’s family was living in an emergency tent. Their house was one of many destroyed by an earthquake on 28 September 2018.

His mother was one of countless women affected by the earthquake — a situation compounded by the fact that family members often depend on women.

Alongside children, women are especially vulnerable to disasters. This does not mean they are weak. Women are in fact strong given their varied roles, especially in times of calamity.

As a journalist, I make it a priority to focus on these two sectors when covering disasters to shine a light on their plight while showing their fortitude.

I’ve been a journalist for 28 years. I started out in a newspaper, before moving on to television, and eventually to digital media. Regardless of the platform, I’ve never outgrown my partiality for covering disasters. I once told my team that you are not a real journalist until you have covered disasters.

As I listen to survivors tell their stories, I feel my faith rising in absolute surrender to the Almighty God, Allah SWT. I absorb their strength, resilience, and sense of surrender.

I particularly recall the twin disasters – earthquake and tsunami – that struck Aceh (Indonesia) on 26 December 2004.

A day after the disaster, Banda Aceh was like a ghost city. There was no electricity and communication was difficult.

Outside the airport, in the Lambaro area, I saw thousands of dead bodies lying along the roads and near the river. I couldn’t quite describe how I felt at that moment. I knew though I was both shocked and felt desolate.

In his book, the Vice President Jusuf Kalla mentioned “Uni Lubis took a film about the tragedy with her small camera.” And yes, at that time, I used a handy cam to film the dead bodies. I saw a dead mother hugging her baby. I felt my heart break at that time. The love and care of the mother was very real.

Even though I had so many pictures and films about the dead bodies, we never aired it on the television programs. Journalism ethics reminds us not to publish any pictures that could stir up bad memories for the victims’ families. We can take as much pictures but we should have the compassion not to publish it, especially if it will ruin the emotions of the victims and their families.

For months, I shuttled back and forth between Jakarta and Aceh, not only to cover the news but also to distribute aid to the survivors. Kompas Gramedia, a media conglomerate, and TV7 built an emergency school in the shelter location. We were particularly concerned about the children whose suffering we wanted to ease.

Ten years later, in 2014, I came back to Aceh, this time as a correspondent for Rappler Indonesia, a digital news organization headquartered in Manila, Philippines.

During that Aceh visit, I met a police officer named Elfiana, the head of women and children police service unit in Nangroe, Aceh Darussalam. I visited her in her house in Meuraksa. She was living by herself in her decent home. I learned she was at work when the disaster happened.

“It was Sunday but we police officers were on heightened alert,” Elfiana told us.

I asked myself: how am I supposed to ask her for information without bringing back memories of the tragedy and making her feel traumatized, as though reliving the past?

Thirty minutes into the interview, I still couldn’t bring myself to ask her about the tsunami. Then she told us that taking care of children who are victims of violence was like “therapy” for her. Her daughter was only 10 years old when she was swept away by the tsunami.

Interviewing disaster survivors is never easy, because people don’t want to remember their sadness. And I cry listening to their stories.


UNI LUBIS is the editor in chief for IDN Times, a digital platform media targeting millennials and the Generation Z. She is the current chairperson of the Forum Jurnalis Perempuan Indonesia (FJPI, Women Journalists Forum of Indonesia).

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