Tsunami Relief/Reporter Grief
The word "indescribable" is one of those clichés often used by people too lazy to really describe what they're seeing. But for the first time in my professional career, I found a place where indescribable was actually the most accurate description.
The word "indescribable" is one of those clichés often used by people too lazy to really describe what they're seeing.
But for the first time in my professional career, I found a place where indescribable was actually the most accurate description.
Banda Aceh, Indonesia, was one of the beach fronts hardest hit by December's devastating tsunamis; a city where an estimated 40-thousand people perished in an instant, their bodies left to rot in the sun, many for several weeks.
When we arrived, clean-up crews were struggling just to free the dead from debris. Burial was a luxury, unless it was with hundreds of others in a hastily dug pit in the mud.
The stench is something that soaked into our memory, a kind of cloud that followed us for days, even weeks afterward. To my surprise, and for no apparent reason, my nose still rekindles that smell — even while sitting in a restaurant or a theater — a sensory reminder that the things I saw there will never leave me, or the people I was with.
But as difficult as it was for any of us reporting from the scene of such devastation, it was harder still to be the ones who were able to leave. At week's end, we boarded an empty cargo plane that had just ferried much needed supplies into the country, and we left it all under the clouds.
We left behind the lines of people holding pictures of their missing or dead loved ones. One after the other they would approach us in the streets, tears in their eyes, with a sense of desperation that sent chills up even the most hardened of hearts. They were people who thought we could help them. We couldn't. No one could.
We left behind the children — many of them orphaned — still dazed by the experience and who were so young, they saw their refugee camps as a new adventure, not the beginning of a life of loss. They stared at us as if we had come with news of their parents, or to bring them their favorite food. Of course we hadn't. And then we too, would walk away.
We left behind scores of teenagers who, with nothing more than rubber gloves and paper-thin masks, were tasked with the back-breaking job of loading body bags into pick-up trucks as if they were collecting trash. Some were their neighbors, their friends, perhaps even their parents. These teenagers were the ones who never talked, never waved, never acknowledged we were there. Not once.
We left behind the aid workers too, who thought network publicity on an evening news broadcast would help bring more money to the cause, and perhaps it did. It was the single thing we may have done to offer a little comfort.
But for the most part, we were as helpless as those who lost everything. We heard their stories, but we could barely listen. We saw their pain, but most often turned away. We heard their cries and their screams, but tried to block them out in order to meet one deadline after another — and write something that made sense to us, let alone our producers.
Now that we've left it all behind, we are left with no excuses, no reasons to push aside what we saw. And in the hustle and bustle of everyday life — the newsrooms we've gotten to know so well, the friends we meet for cocktails, even the unpacking of a suitcase — there are times when it all falls silent and all we remember is the taste, the smell, and the lingering feeling that we should have done more, but didn't.