The traces of rice powder make-up that stain Elma Wati’s face hint to her life before the earthquake tore down her home. As if to distract from the horror around her she recalled how she made the powder herself. But it was clear that make-up was far from her mind.
When the earthquake struck here last Wednesday, Elma, 40, was at home with her elderly mother. Her jaded expression showed that this wasn’t her first earthquake. But it was the most devastating.
“I knew what it was immediately,” she said. “At first it was a slow movement but quickly it became very violent. The furniture was moving across the floor and the ground itself seemed to be jumping. Straight away I jumped up and ran to my mother. I screamed for my children because I didn’t know where they were. Then I heard them screaming from far away and I got extremely worried. As I ran for the door some kind of yellow liquid rose up through the floor.
“I ran to where I could hear my daughter Maisie. She was on the road near my house almost collapsed with fear. She kept screaming to me, ‘Why did you leave me?’”
Fear of another tsunami raced through her mind as she watched houses crumble around her. She ran with Maisie, her mother and her son Dimas to a nearby hill. An old lady, her neighbour, was hit by debris and fell to the ground as she fled.
“She was screaming for help,” Elma said, “all around me people were crying and trying to grab food from their homes.”
As they escaped they heard screams coming from a mosque. Elma looked in to see if she could help but she saw two women on the ground covered in rubble. One woman had been hit hard on the head and she knew they were dead.
The Wati family spent the night on the hillside too afraid of a tsunami that thankfully never appeared.
“It was very cold on the hill,” said Maisie, “and I couldn’t sleep. This wasn’t her first earthquake, “but it was the scariest”.
“There were other families and children up there but we didn’t play any games, said Elma. “I stayed with my terrified mother.”
Elma returned to the ruins of her home the next day by herself. It had completely collapsed.
“I searched through the rubble to get what I could. We had no water, no clothes. I found nothing I could save. Even my photographs were all gone.”
“I am sad and worried when I think about the future. When I look at the remains of my house all I can think of is the earthquake and I can’t stand it.”
Elma’s husband is a farmer and his machine to husk grain was in the house. Even this has been crushed so the family has no food and no way to make money. Elma is trying to sell fruit in the market but nobody else in the village has money to buy it.
The family is now living on the floor of a shop that the children find “cold and uncomfortable”. This upsets Elma, who is doing everything she can to cope.
“I will rebuild my house, but we will need help. Even the school fell down so the children are not getting their education.”
It was hard to imagine what lies ahead for Elma as she sat in a medical tent funded by Trócaire (Caritas Ireland) with the oppressive midday heat baking the dusty rubble outside.
Elma and her family were eventually checked by the doctors in the medical clinic. They were fine, physically, but the psychological scars were written on their faces. And yet, she managed a smile when I asked her if she felt lucky or unlucky.
“I am lucky,” she said immediately looking around her. “My family and I – we are alive.”
Elma and other families like hers in Torong Bayur village near Padang are receiving medical assistance from Caritas partners. They are also receiving tarpaulins to keep them and their few belongings dry from the heavy rains in Sumatra this time of year. Caritas is also providing them with tents to live in while they rebuild their homes as well as cooking utensils and blankets.