Sights Burnt into The Mind

World Food Program (WFP) workers bear witness to countless alarming sights in their line of work, so WFP started a mental health campaign. Dipayan Bhatt, a WFP employee shares some of the most traumatizing things he experienced in his line of work.

Standing in front of the cramped assembly hall, Principle John Roberts of the British International School of Jakarta shook. His immaculately pressed white collared shirt crumpled around his waist as he informed the elementary student body about the 26 Dec. 2004, Boxing Day tsunami that had devastated Indonesia just the month before. I lived in Jakarta when the tsunami hit, my father works for the World Food Program, and we were newly posted there.

Wiping the back of his flushed hand on his forehead, John began to tell his personal experience of that dark day.

John and his family were vacationing on the Fiji Islands for Christmas. His two sons and he were enjoying their day at the beach with a couple of family friends when they saw the ocean water recede rapidly, exposing the seabed. John remembers feeling perplexed, but he hadn’t thunk too much of it, that was until one of his sons pointed out to the colossal wall of water that was surging towards them at an unimaginable speed. People all around him stood and watched fascinated. None of them had ever witnessed such a sight before, it seemed to be like something out of a movie. He remembers thinking that it oddly resembled a scene from The Day After Tomorrow where a similar gargantuan wall of water had destroyed New York. Somehow, that thought was what had snapped him out of his trance; he had then grabbed the hands of both of his sons just as the water swallowed up three large luxury cruise boats on the horizon.

John’s voice broke at that moment, he put down the mike on the podium before taking a deep, ragged breath and continuing. Petrified screams had begun to ring around the vicinity, but they were slowly getting drowned out by the deafening roar of the waves as they hit the shore. John instructed his sons to run up the hill and to head to the roof of the hotel. He climbed up a palm tree after trying to make sure that all of his relatives were safe. As he clung onto the tree, he saw countless people being engulfed by the ferocious waves as they destroyed everything in their path.

“I will never forget the sight, ever,” said John, breaking into tears.

On Dec. 26, 2004, the island of Sumatra in Indonesia was hit with an earthquake that read 9.2 on the rector scale. A massive tsunami occurred as a result; 18 countries were affected by it. According to WFP reports, the death toll was 250,000. Indonesia alone had a death toll of 150,000. It was around 2 p.m. when my father, Dipayan Bhattacharyya, was called in for an emergency meeting at the WFP office. We were having a family lunch at an Indonesian restaurant called Padang when he got the call. It had been almost eight months since we had moved to Jakarta, and this was going to be his biggest relief mission to date.

At the grim but essential meeting, it had been decided that Dipayan would be in the team of people who would fly out on the morning of the 27th for disaster relief and recovery. After saying goodbye to my teary mother and me, he left. He had promised that he would try to contact us when he could with his satellite telephone as the area had no network after the disaster.

Dipayan was to fly into the affected areas on a helicopter with several Indonesian senior government and army officials. They were given the task of doing an aerial survey of all the affected areas. The tsunami had hit the province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra the hardest as it was right by the epicenter of the earthquake. Their first destination was the city of Banda, which was the capital of Aceh, and the place that had the highest death toll in the country due to its dense population.

When Aceh finally came into view, Dipayan was frozen with shock. He had never, in his life, had witnessed destruction on such a level. Whole towns and villages were completely flattened and destroyed by the sheer force of the waves. Warped pieces of red and blue roofs were sticking out of the piles and piles of muddy rubble and debris that buried everything in sight. Almost no buildings were standing upright; schools, churches, and hospitals were all destroyed. He could hear the people in the helicopter let out words of shock and grief as they took in the horrific sight. Large parts of towns were submerged underwater with just the tips of buildings being visible. Dipayan felt the bile rise to his throat, to him it seemed like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. It looked too horrifying to be real, and he had been to many other disaster-stricken places before, but none of them had looked like the sight in front of him. It didn’t look like a town to him, but rather a contaminated wetland.

“It was the first time I had realized the destructive power that water can have,” said Dipayan. “Before that point, I had always thought of water as something peaceful. But, seeing all of that in front of me made me realize that as peaceful water is, it can be equally as deadly.”

After three hours of aerial reconnaissance survey, the government officials, with grim faces, had declared a national emergency. They started planning for international help for the search and rescue and relief operations. With the reports from the aerial survey, the UN immediately appealed for global human capacity and financial support. NGOs such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent provided them with instant support.

Dipayan was given the task of coordinating the logistics for the response and coordinating with the government, US Marines, and other army personnel who came from several countries to support the massive operation. Like in all initial relief efforts, the WFP had provided those affected with high nutrition biscuits, as the main relief food was being prepped by the government. A large team of WFP agents had flown in from the Rome headquarters as extra help and with relief plans that morning. If a disaster were to strike sometime in the future, my father would be one of those extra hands as he is now posted in Rome, where the headquarters of WFP is. Dipayan, along with other WFP workers began setting up base camps and emergency shelters for all the affected people and also helped with recovery missions. He remembers the tents being a dull blue color, which, he thought was strange as they had seemed bright blue to him back in Jakarta. But, amongst all the destruction and death, the color seemed dull to him. While interacting with countless affected locals, Dipayan got to hear their harrowing stories as they talked to him and others as outlets for their trauma.

An elderly fisherman was the first one to talk to my father. My father looked at me with watery eyes when he recounted the man’s story. I felt my nose burning as a warning of oncoming tears, as I had never seen my father tear up before.

Pak Soemarno (Pak is an honorary one calls an elderly man in Bahasa Indonesia) was a fisherman with 30 years of experience under his belt. He was from the town of Lhoksumawe. He had gone down to the shores of Banda at 6 a.m. like clockwork with his fishing net, fish food and a warm meal of Ayam Tangkap wrapped up in a banana leaf. As he was setting up his boat, the color of the ocean made him stop in his tracks. He had a bad feeling looking out into the waters, the color seemed too dark and murky. It looked wrong. He took it as a sign that something dreadful was coming. It felt like a bad omen to him. In his entire fishing experience, the ocean had never looked like it had that. Dropping all his supplies and the lunch his wife made him, Pak Soemarno ran back up the cobblestoned paths of Lhoksumawe and warned as many fishermen and people he ran across. Most of the younger fishermen scoffed at him and went on to the shore to do their jobs. He knew they thought that he was just a nutty old man, but he had tried his best to warn them. Pak Soemarno felt his stomach almost hollow out at the sight of the men walking down to the beach, but he could not dwell on it for too long, he had his family and neighbors to save. He ran to his white van, packed a few essential belongings in, and got his family and as many neighbors as he could fit into the vehicle, and drove inland. He continued to warn anybody he saw while driving. After the tsunami had passed, he learned that none of the young fishermen survived and those who had stayed behind in his neighborhood had all died. More than half of his town had been destroyed, including his own house. Pak Soemarno had told Dipayan that he felt guilty of being alive, he didn’t understand why he survived while so many young people had lost their lives. One detail that Dipayan remembers clearly about Pak Soemarno is that his face had been streaked with dried tears, almost as if he had cried out all his tears, and thus had none left to shed while he had told my father the story.

“Ah yes, I definitely remember Pak Soemarno, he had come to me after Dipayan and told me about his family, and also about the friends who he had lost, good man he was,” said Sylvia Suramano, a co-worker from Dipayan’s Jakarta office. “I’m sure I had seen the dead body of one the people he mentioned, because of the clothing he described. There was a mosque a few hundred meters away from our campsite where the locals and government officials had wrapped up dead bodies in plastic and blankets and stored them in the main hall of the mosque. I had seen the guy get wrapped up there. Honestly, it’s still hard to remember to this day. I didn’t tell him about that.”

A few meters behind the relief base lay a matted grey overturned offshore electricity vessel that was pushed eight to 10 kilometers inland by the waves. Dipayan could see the trail the ship had made as it had crushed and flattened all structures it had gone over. The sight had made him want to throw up, but he had barely eaten that morning, so he had nothing to empty. His co-worker had told him that there had been 40 people onboard the ship. As the tsunami had hit the ship, 39 of them had jumped overboard in sheer panic and had lost their lives immediately. Only one man had survived because he had climbed up the observation tower and stayed there. He remembers how his co-worker’s face had then crumpled, almost as if the next part of the account was physically hurting her. She had teared up and was unable to continue for a while. As Dipayan had comforted her, she had told him between sobs that the sole survivor of the ship had gained so much mental trauma from seeing the ship crush people to death, that he had to be taken to a mental institute.

“He remains there to this day, the poor man had never been able to recover,” said Dipayan. “I remember feeling so helpless as I heard the stories from the survivors, I can’t imagine the terror they must have felt witnessing things like that.”

My father told me that the next set of stories for him was the most difficult to recount as they had hit him the hardest. His hands shook in his lap and his thick black-framed glasses fogged up. I almost didn’t want him to continue, it pained me to see him that upset. I had never given a thought to just how much mental trauma he must have gone through in his line of job. After he drank an entire bottle of water, he continued with the stories in an almost monotone voice.

Several grief-stricken mothers had come to Dipayan with recounts of their loss. They were in their houses prepping the meals for the day when they had seen waters from the shore recede. At first, they were not sure what to think, as they had never seen such a sight before. One of them had told the others that maybe they should call their kids back, just in case it might be something dangerous. As they had decided to head down to the beach, they heard a resounding boom of noise come from the shore, looking up they saw the humongous waves hurtling towards the shore. Feeling dread pool in their stomachs, all of the women had run towards the beach, screaming and trying to get their children’s attention, who were all picking up the fish from the dried-up seabed. When they were about a hundred meters from the beach, the waves hit land and swept all of their children away.

“I remember hearing these women tell Dipayan the story of the passing of their children, they were almost in hysterics and were asking why God did this to them,” said Joe Chang, one of my father’s collogues who had also been posted to Rome in 2019. “I had to turn away to hide my tears it was so heart wrenching. This aspect is one of the most difficult parts of our job, you never get used to it.”

My father had to take a break after the retelling of their account. Once he came back after having his dinner, he told me about the experiences of his colleagues from the Banda office. Many of them were caught up in the tsunami while out in the city. After the tsunami had passed, they were in alarm as the fate of their families was unknown. A number of them went into the waters and had to turn the bodies that were floating face down up to see if the person was a family member or not. Dipayan kept clenching and unclenching his hands around his phone as he told me about their heart-wrenching experiences.

While this relief work was taking place, WFP workers collaborated with the government to provide the food shipments to the survivors as soon as possible. The WFP keeps data on food habits, preferences, and cultural habits for each country and they use that data to determine what food to provide survivors with. If most of the food can be locally sourced, it only takes a few days to arrive, and if they needed to source it internationally then it could take up to five to six weeks. Usually, in the second case, the WFP and the government would access a country’s buffer stocks.

“WFP was very prompt in the food relief process there, I mean we usually are but you get my point,” said Steve Smith, the Deputy Country Director of WFP in the Philippines. “Another great thing that the UN and WFP did after that disaster was setting up mental health facilities for both UN workers and the locals to deal with the mental trauma. They brought in counselors from Bangkok and Rome for it. It was when our mental health program the ‘Mental Health Matters, A Healthy Workforce for a Better World’ was born.”

Smith described the fears the locals or UN workers felt every time there were earthquake aftershocks, as they thought that the shocks would cause more tsunamis. The counselors and psychosocial workers were experts in the disaster trauma field and helped these people in the recovery process.

The conversation about ‘Mental Health Matters, A Healthy Workforce for a Better World’ program led to my father’s work trip to Tacloban, where he went after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013. I remember this clearly as the whole nation was in alarm. Our family was based in Manila during that time. All schools and businesses had closed down due to the typhoon warnings. I can recall the trepidation my mother and I felt as we saw the almost pitch-black clouds covering the skies of Manila from our floor 32 apartment floor to ceiling windows. The thick clouds hid the top of the buildings. Dipayan was to fly out on the morning of 8 Nov. to the city of Tacloban to be there ahead of the typhoon, so he could help to begin the relief process earlier. My mother did not want him to go as she had seen the news and had seen the predictions about it being the strongest typhoon in the world to date. She feared for his life. I remember her clutching at his shirt and crying, begging him not to go. However, the decision had already been made, there was nothing my father could do.

The day before his flight was supposed to leave, almost as if by some outside force, all the flights in Manila’s airport were canceled due to the turbulent weather. Instead, Dipayan would now fly out on 9 Nov. He first took a normal flight to Cebu, an island in Central Philippines, and then took an army flight with government officials to Tacloban. Once he landed, he saw that the entirety airport had been completely wrecked by the typhoon. The communications tower was demolished in half, and the main terminal building had lost its roof. The sight eerily reminded him of the sights he saw in Aceh nine years back. The Filipino army put all the WFP workers and government officials into army vans and took them to the town center.

As they drove out of the airport, Dipayan saw dead bodies of men, women, and children littering the entire vicinity. He felt horror seeping into all the crevices of his body. Even though he had seen similar scenes back in Aceh, by the time he had gotten there, most of the bodies had been collected already. The typhoon was still going on when he reached Tacloban, though the more dangerous parts had left the area by then.

“God, just within the first few minutes I must have seen about 300 bodies or more,” said Dipayan.

Seeing the bodies lie there with no one around was a sight that left a deep impact on him. The Filipino ministers who were with him were already in tears seeing the sights in front. The infrastructure damage looked similar to those of a tsunami as the fast winds had created very large storm surges in the oceans and had thus damaged the coastal cities.

“I think when we were in the van, the ministers were already planning to announce a national emergency. And unsurprisingly on the 11th, the president announced a State of National Calamity at a level 3, and had asked for international help,” said Abraham Abatneh, a friend of my fathers who was there with him, and now is posted in Rome as well.

Both Abatneh and my father described uprooted trees scattering the landscape, houses and buildings looking torn down, most houses had missing roofs, the windows were all shattered, and cars were upturned. Farmlands looked ruined with debris and contaminated water ruining the soil. Once they reached their camp sight, all the workers decided to give the affected locals their supply of high nutrition biscuits along with the supply they bought with the army after seeing the state of things. WFP had prepared for the typhoon beforehand, so they had already sent out the food and nutritional needs data to the government, and the shipments were arriving on Nov. 10. After setting up emergency shelters and a base camp, they began the relief work. Part of it was the psycho counseling. WFP had bought along with psycho counselors with them to the site. These counselors were experts in disaster counseling. Most of the counselors came from Rome and Bangkok and were part of the ‘Mental Health Matters, A Healthy Workforce for a Better World’ campaign. The counselors helped the locals, WFP, and other UN agency workers who experienced trauma in Tacloban. Most of the WFP workers who took the counseling were people who had to stay in Tacloban for an extended period.

The entire time Dipayan was there, he and his colleagues had to survive on just high energy biscuits, and they could not defecate or shower for 12 days as there were no bathrooms. They saw bodies being recovered daily. The death toll for Haiyan was approximately 6,532 according to the WFP reports, and most of the deaths occurred in Tacloban.

Dipayan had to take a few days of counseling after his experience, as it had harrowed him even more than the 2004 tsunami because he had to be in Tacloban for almost two weeks straight. Other WFP officials had to also take an extended amount of counseling for their experiences, especially those who were there for months.

“Yeah, I had to take about three months of counseling I think?” said Ruby Garcia, Dipayan’s colleague from the Manila WFP office. “I have relatives who were originally from Tacloban, so it was very difficult for me to be there, and to see it that way. Especially seeing all those dead bodies haunted me, to see such a thing happening in your own home country is heart-wrenching. But the counseling sessions did help me to get back up on my feet.”

Dipayan thinks as mentally distressing and difficult his job can be, he is still passionate about it as the WFP helps to save countless lives.

“As long as I’m helping people, it’s ok, it’s just another aspect of my job,”

a lost girl who loves to write 24/yo

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