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July 7, 2005

UW prof continues tsunami relief efforts

The rebuilding of tsunami- and earthquake-damaged Indonesia is well under way, but the extent of psychological scarring left by the twin disasters still remains a large question mark, according to a UW professor who has been involved in relief efforts.

Randall Kyes, research professor of psychology and head of the division of international programs at the UW’s National Primate Research Center, recently returned from his second visit to Banda Aceh, which was at the epicenter of the devastation. On his first trip to Indonesia shortly after the 9.3 earthquake that triggered the tsunami, he worked with several local relief groups to set up an emergency psychological trauma center.

Upon his return to Seattle, Kyes created the Aceh Student Assistance fund to assist college students at Bogor Agricultural University, an Indonesian institution with which the UW has a cooperative program. Those students are expected to play leadership roles in rebuilding the nation in the years ahead.

On his recent trip, Kyes said the trauma center, operating in the city’s restored mental hospital, is still seeing patients with classic signs of trauma — depression and anxiety. He was told that a number of children have a phobia of water after surviving the tsunami and are not able to drink a glass of water unless they close their eyes or cover the glass.

“Doctors at the center say they are seeing fewer patients with psychological trauma, but other clinics say the numbers haven’t decreased. The bottom line is that we really don’t know the extent or progression of trauma because there is no centralized system in place to gather critical information regarding trauma cases,” Kyes said.

“At this point it would be foolish to think all is well and that the number of cases seems to be falling below predictions without more concrete data. We are dealing with a lot of unknowns.”

“In the wake of a major disaster, psychological trauma is not usually a priority concern and perhaps gets overlooked because many people are able to get by although suffering silently. The fact was that when I first got there, I did not find an organized plan to deal with acute cases of trauma. The primary concern was to save lives, prevent disease and feed people, as would be expected. But, I would hope that in future disasters, psychological trauma would be addressed as a priority concern from the outset,” he said.

Kyes added that psychological scarring is readily apparent in conversations with survivors and almost everyone he spoke with would tell him what they experienced.

“There was no holding back. But they would describe these horribly traumatic experiences in an almost matter-of-fact way. When I asked how they are doing emotionally the common response was, ‘I have cried so much I have nothing left in me’ or ‘I am dry inside.’”

People he talked with described how the earth shook so hard for nearly 10 minutes that they could not stand up. When the ground stopped shaking, many whose houses were still standing went inside only to hear a shout rolling across the city 15 minutes later that the ocean was rising. People began fleeing on foot, on bicycles and on motorcycles ahead of the water only to see loved ones swept away as they frantically grabbed on to cocoanut trees or fences.

“In the first week after the tsunami, dismembered and battered bodies were everywhere. And there were scores of horribly wounded people,” Kyes said. “People felt there was no hope of assistance and they talked about just walking around in shock, dazed and crying.”

At the end of this month, Kyes will return to Indonesia, where he has done fieldwork for 15 years on endangered primates, to resume directing research and summer field training courses as part of the cooperative program with Bogor Agricultural University.

Kyes said vast strides had been made in the five months following the disaster. In ravaged Banda Aceh, once a city of 250,000 people, most of the tsunami debris has been cleared away and people are now dealing with cleaning up from the initial earthquake. He said people have begun marking plots of land where their houses once stood, some temporary houses are being built in the city and mass construction of boats is under way to replace the area’s ravaged fishing industry.

“There always will be criticism of rebuilding efforts, but I have the highest regard for the people and government of Indonesia,” said Kyes. “They are doing an impossible job in chaotic conditions as best they can. To their credit, there were no massive outbreaks of disease and people are not going hungry.

“But you don’t rebuild in minutes and we can’t let people forget this. It is easy to turn our attention to the next disaster or world problem. The people of Indonesia are at a critical point in rebuilding and we need to let them know that the world is still concerned about their well being.”

Members of the campus community who would like to make contribution to the Aceh Student Assistance Fund may send checks care of Kyes at Box 357330 on campus. Questions about the fund may be directed to Lauren Jorelle, program coordinator of the division of international programs, at 206-685-7159.

So far, the UW community has contributed and pledged more than $4,000 to the fund.