First hard steps to normalcy


We hear and read about the horrors of the destruction in the wake of the Dec 26 tsunami that hit our region and, closer to home, Penang and Kedah. We empathise; how could we not? But we don’t really know the extent of their suffering, how they try to go on with their lives. We are just given a snapshot of a particular moment in a day in their lives when things went horribly wrong. 

For many of the villagers of Pulau Betong, Penang, it was a double blow. Not only were their houses damaged or destroyed, their fishing boats (for most were fishermen) were also damaged, destroyed or sunk on that fateful day. The estimates are that 94 fishermen had their boats or nets damaged or destroyed and 28 houses were similarly affected. 

Instead of just a brief visit, we decide to look at how a family is coping with the disaster and trying to rebuild their lives day by day. Fisherman Mohd Sabri Ismail of Kg Kuala Pulau Betong allows us a peek into his family’s attempts to haul themselves back up. We met up with him and his family 10 days after the incident. 

Day 1 

The 35-year-old fisherman has been staying there for over 20 years and shares his home with his wife, Zaimi Zainol, 36, and his four children, Mohd Sazuan, 15, Mohd Zuhairi, 14, Noor Hidayah, 9, and Mohd Hafizuddin, 7. Also living with him are his younger sister Rosmawati Ismail, 23, and his brother-in-law Musmuradi Chin, 28. 

“I was asleep and my second boy, Zuhairi, woke me up saying something strange was happening in the sea,” Mohd Sabri recounts in Bahasa Malaysia the events of the day, which occurred around 1.15pm. “I went to the back of the house with him and saw strange white waves on the horizon. I saw it rushing to the shore and rushed to my boat. I had to decide: save my boat or save our lives? I had already told my eldest boy to run to the hills. I decided to run back with Zuhairi following. 

“I also warned my neighbours and they were yelling that their grandmother was sick and they couldn’t leave her but I advised them to carry her and do whatever was necessary. When the first wave hit, my son and I clung to the window grille of my house. When the water receded I saw that everything in my home was washed away or soaking wet and the house was full of all kinds of fishes and prawns that were brought in by the water. 

“Then I just continued running but managed to scoop up my neighbour’s child while Zuhairi ran up the hill and also fished another neighbour’s child from the water. Then the second wave came but I had managed to reach higher ground and it was pretty soon before the third wave hit but it was not so strong. The strongest was the first one.”  

He adds that his car was swept away into the undergrowth in front of his home but his motorbike was miraculously untouched. 

“I was already crying as I was worried about my two other children who had gone picnicking with my brother-in-law at Pasir Panjang beach and the first thing I did after checking that my two eldest were okay was to rush there. I saw the three of them when I reached there and was so glad. But I saw my friend’s child who had drowned and had foam in the mouth. His four other family members are still missing,” recalls Mohd Sabri. 

“I was just so thankful that my family members were safe. I then rushed back. My wife, who works in a factory in Kg Jawa, rushed back home around 4pm and was relieved to see us all safe. I didn’t let anybody into the house, thinking they might get a fright from the condition the house was in.”  

Surveying the damage 

On the first day, he says, the villagers basically helped each other and it was mainly the fishermen’s association members that were around doing whatever was necessary. After all, he says, most of the villagers were his relatives, and the houses behind him, for instance, belong to his two sisters. Many of the people in this village in Pulau Betong originally came from Kelantan and among themselves it was actually called Kg Kelantan. 

It was quite confusing that day, he says, and he remembers that a group came to ask them to move to the temporary relief centres that had been set up. Mohd Sabri refused to go as he was worried about the things in his house that might be salvageable. But he sent the women and the two younger children to the centre at the fire station while he and his two children and Musmuradi set up a tent on the hill where they had sought refuge some 30m away. 

Only after setting up the tent did he go and have a look at his boat, which, like many others, was swept up onto the banks of the river. Mohd Sabri was glad to see that the engine was not damaged though other parts were. One of his nets was totally destroyed while another was damaged. 

By that night his parents, Ismail Yen (mid-60s) and Membungah Dollah (late 50s), and four siblings from Bacok, Kelantan, had arrived, so the tent was now full with at least nine people. 

“Food by that time was plentiful in that the people at the centre were helping to cook and distribute to those affected. On the second day, we discussed among the family what to do but we didn’t really know what to do. We did a little bit of cleaning up but we were just in low spirits and so only on the third day did we really start cleaning up the house and removing most of the damaged furniture and all the now useless electrical items including the TV. 

“That’s what we did for the next few days. On the fourth day, my siblings had to go back to Kelantan but my parents stayed back,” says Mohd Sabri. 

His father Ismail says that they could not go back until they were sure their children were all okay. 

Financial aid had come in by the fifth day, with the Islamic Council giving RM200 and the District Office giving RM500. Mohd Sabri says most of it has been spent buying rice, cooking oil and other basic necessities. He is grateful for the aid in the form of second-hand clothes but many were not usable. He had to buy shoes for all his four children. 

Only three have returned to school with new schoolbags and clothes courtesy of non-government organisations. He has not allowed Sazuan to go back to school as he was still having a fever from a few days ago. 

Right now his priority is to get his boat repaired as his livelihood is even more crucial now as it is the only means for his family to earn enough to get back to as normal a life as possible. 

We will talk with him tomorrow and see how his family is progressing. 

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