Monday, May 12, 2008

Survival (Not) of the Fittest

DO you still remember Charles Darwin? About “Survival of The Fittest” on his masterpiece book titled “The Origin of Species”? Like other species in the world; ethnic groups, communities, societies, nations and corporations have to defend their own life in order to survive. One among other survivors who always tries to survive in former tsunami most affected area is Karen Dersen, twenty three years old youth descendant of South Indians. “I was born in Medan but I spent my childhood in Medan and Banda Aceh. My mother is living in Banda Aceh now but other relatives are still living in Medan,” sometimes he shared his story with me in separated moment.

In down town of Medan, an area called Kampung Keling is considered as the original home of Medan's ethnic Indian community. They are mainly the descendants of South Indians who came to work in the plantations of North Sumatra in the late 1800s. A prominent reminder of the South Indian heritage in the area is the Sri Mariamman temple, which was built in 1881 for the goddess Kali. The names of the streets in the area also once reflected the origin of those living there; Calcutta, Nagapatam, Bombay Streets. Kampung Keling, which was originally called Patisah, changed its name to Kampung Madras to reflect the South Indian origin of those living in the 10 hectare area. But because the South Indians were mostly people of dark skin, the name Keling - a slang word for darker skin - became more popular. What attracted them to the area was the presence of the Sri Mariamman temple, which today has become one of Medan's tourist attractions.

There was a moment where Medan was not safe enough because of local thugs (preman) were fighting to each other. This was the reason why Karen then was sent to Banda Aceh. But during the implementation of DOM (Zone of Military Operations) in Aceh, he was forced to come back to Medan again. It was another hard time for him and his family and he did not finish his study yet. “We have no other choice, we must be flexible so we can survive,” he said.

Blessing in Disguise

No one ever predicted about Tsunami in Aceh. But when such gigantic wave attacked western and northern part of Sumatera, it brought the real change. Thirty four countries sent their 16.000 personals, 117 medical teams, 31 aircrafts, 82 helicopters, 1 floating hospital, 9 mother ships and 14 warships in a colossal way, all at once. This was the biggest humanitarian response ever recorded in modern history. From closed isolated guided territory by military under the martial law, Aceh geographically transform itself into open society. Everybody come and welcome to Aceh. Karen told me that tsunami had brought both positive and negative impact. “Situation in Aceh before tsunami was very troubled, especially for those who are not Moslem. Even for getting a job, we have to be a Moslem, unless we manage our own business. Opening a restaurant for example, the owner can be non-Moslem but waiters must be a Moslem,” he said.

One fine day we talked each other in a simple Padang restaurant in Medan.

“What is your most interesting experience during your work time with Caritas Germany?” I asked him.

”To be honest, I got lot of new experience. My language (English) skill is increasing, I know better how to deal with social problems, how to handle project management and also how should we combine the technical aspects with social aspects. I got the most important experience when I work in Simeuleu island, Jogja (during the emergency response for earthquake’s survivors) and Trienggading,” Karen explained me that each project he ever handled has different approach.

“So then based on your experience, which project is the best one in relation with the previous concept and its implementation on the ground?” I gave him another question and drank my lemon juice.

He smiled spontaneously and answered me, ”Let’s compare Lhoong and Jambo Masjid. Lhoong has a good concept since the beginning. We started our project by involving community directly. It was a really participatory approach driven by local NGO named Mammamia. Yes, I can understand we cannot use this participatory approach in every location. And I see the establishment of committee maybe was not so correct because then we pay them including all their administrative expenditures. It was like we hire new staff. Then people think we have lot of money to be spent. It was a pity we use contractors for reconstruction project in Jambu Masjid. Local people saw contractors as the party who are responsible to build their houses so they feel they do not need to give any contribution.”

Karen’s answer gave me another question in my mind; what is the important one? Participatory approach or speed factor? A project’s evaluator ever said to me that speed factor is chosen to lighten survivor’s suffering so they can stay inside the house as soon as possible. But a friend of mine, he is a community development worker and he chooses participatory approach in order to respect the rights of survivor to determine their own future and needs. So; it is like a game whether we should choose an egg or hen first?

Despite such interesting experience, Karen said he was very happy because of tsunami he could accomplish his engineering study in Syah Kuala University, Banda Aceh. He even already has a job before finishing his thesis. When social depression occurred in Aceh during conflict period, tsunami came and brought thousands of job opportunity for others. What a blessing in disguise! Karen even now has a dream to become a professional engineer and would like to have his own company in the future. “I am motivated by Claus Hemker, I saw him as a professional engineer and consultant, I want to become like him and has my own company one day,” he shared with me his fruitful moment when he assisted Claus Hemker, an engineering consultant hired by Caritas Germany.

The Peaceful Survivor
Practicing Hindu’s values in his everyday life but working in a Catholic organization who gives its service for the poor and tsunami’s survivors living surrounded by strong Islamic tradition does not make Karen feel alienated from others. “I guest there are similarities between Hindus and Aceh; the familial relationship, daily good manners and the respectful to our parents. Almost all Caritas staff based in Banda are Acehnese, but principally I do not have any problem with them,” he said. But being identified by society as minority group, Karen feels that the discrimination is still alive and sometimes he becomes the victim of its unfair treatment.

“How do you face this problem?” I asked.

“Yeah, I just face it. When I was student of University Syahkuala, our lecturer teaches us about Pancasila (national ideology). He said no need for us to worship statue. I knew he tease me and it made me hurt. But in Hindu’s teaching we learnt about Ahimsa (do no harm to others) and we have to do something also for others goodness. So I just stay calm and not to react angrily to him.”

Actually, social constructed identities such as religion, ethnic and gender are having nothing to do with humanitarian service. But very often when survivors realize that they will get aid from Christian (Acehnese says Kristen to mention Catholic and Protestant) based organization, they will call it as a help from Kafir. “These cases happened in Aceh but maybe they have no choice so many of them just received it but without saying thank you. Of course it is not a problem for me but I just wonder why those people did not say thank you after receiving house,” Karen told me one of his field experiences.

I try to put my position as if I was a Karen or an Acehnese. Yes, of course it is not a perfect relationship, nor one that is at all equal. But a symbiosis has naturally developed that has helped encourage a peaceful understanding among residents in Aceh; whether they are Acehnese, Hindu descendants India, European, Javanese, Chinese, etc. At least, since time goes by the atmosphere of peace is really presence in Aceh now. Of course this peaceful understanding and cohabitation did not occur overnight and it will still required years of mutual tolerance by all sides before a level of "comfort" could be attained.

“I am surprise that situation in Aceh can be changed as fast as it is like today. I thought it will consume lot of years. I can see Acehnese become more open now even we cannot get our real freedom because of Syariah Islam implementation. But I am also wonder whether Acehnese economic development will run in smooth way if all international NGO left next year,” Karen finished his lemon juice.

With the support of all local, national and international actors through its rehabilitation and reconstruction project, perhaps one day Aceh will answer the idealism concept of Open Society model by George Soros. In his book titled “Open Society and Its Enemies” he maintained that societies can only flourish when they allow democratic governance, freedom of expression, a diverse range of opinion, and respect for individual rights. And I still remember that Charles Darwin himself insisted that social policy should not simply be guided by concepts of struggle and selection in nature, and that sympathy should be extended to all races and nations.

When I finished my lemon juice also, I am sure I just met with the real peaceful survivor, and He is Karen himself. * * *