From Tsunami Victim to Midwife Hero

The morning of 26 December, 2004, started out like any other regular Sunday for Nur Asiah.

The mother-of-two was up early completing her chores, washing clothes in the outside bathroom of her parent-in-law’s house in a coastal village in the district of Aceh Jaya.

But her usual weekend routine was disrupted when a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck 160 kilometers underwater off the coast of Sumatra. As the ground started to shake, Nur crouched down low and rushed back inside the house to find her eight-month-old son.

“I just wanted to hold my baby,” the midwife recalls. “I remember a man running through the village screaming that the water was receding and that there were fish on the beach. So my parents-in-law and my eldest child went down to take a look.”


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Aceh midwife Nur Asiah stands in the spot where she first felt the earthquake at her parent-in-law’s home. UNFPA Indonesia/Sandra Siagian 

Before that day, Nur had never heard of the word tsunami.

But there were soon members of Indonesia’s Armed Forces (TNI) running through her village warning people of the incoming tidal waves, calling on people to clear out and head up to the nearby mountain.

With her son on her back, her five-year-old daughter and in-laws by her side, Nur and her family scrambled through a forest and made it to the top of a mountain just in time to see giant waves sweep through her village.

“I saw people get pulled into the water,” recalls Nur, who says she was scared and shocked by what she had seen. “It was so crowded and people were confused because they didn’t know what a tsunami was. I didn’t even know whether my husband was ok or not because he was working in Meulaboh [a district kilometres away from Aceh Jaya].”

As members of her village comforted each other and came to terms with what had just happened, another community member contacted Nur to ask for assistance with a heavily pregnant woman at a different location. At the time, Nur says she felt like she wasn’t ready to help as she was still distressed by what she had just seen. But her mother-in-law encouraged her to push through and follow through with her commitment as a midwife to help others.

“I hadn’t even been in touch with my husband but my mother-in-law told me to be strong,” explained Nur, who has been a midwife in Aceh since 1994. “So I walked to the location where the expectant mother was to help her.”

With no medical facilities, let alone any enclosed areas to examine the pregnant woman, Nur had to deliver the baby on the grass, in the open, amongst a chaotic and crowded atmosphere.

“I still remember it was about 10pm when I delivered the baby,” says Nur, who is a member of the Indonesian Midwives Association (IBI). “I had no medication, tools or equipment to assist the birth but thanks to God, the baby and mother survived.”

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Nur Asiah has remained friends with the mother she helped give birth on the night a tsunami hit their village in Aceh Jaya. Ahlan, pictured above with his mother Eva on the right, is now 10 years old and attends the same school as Nur’s children. UNFPA Indonesia/Sandra Siagian 

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people and devastated coastal communities in 11 countries. The Indonesian province of Aceh was among the worst-hit regions, with around 130,000 people killed and more than half a million displaced.

Soon after the natural disaster, UNFPA Indonesia provided support to address the reproductive health problems of Aceh’s tsunami-affected population. The agency helped re-establish reproductive health services and distributed information on maternal health, family planning and prevention of gender-based violence in the four most-affected districts – Banda Aceh, Aceh Barat, Aceh Jaya and Aceh Besar.

Each of the 10 puskesmas (public health centres) across the four districts were equipped with an ambulance with the capacity to provide basic resuscitation equipment and emergency obstetric care. The support also included distribution of midwifery and hygiene kits. A special population census to determine the population impact of the tsunami was also organized in Aceh and Nias – a small neighbouring island that was also affected by the disaster.

Nur eventually reunited with her husband 10 days after the tsunami hit her hometown in Aceh Jaya. But it wasn’t until three months later when she and her family were able to leave the makeshift emergency camp in the mountain, to return back to the place where their home once stood to begin rebuilding their lives.

“I was still scared to leave the mountain after three months,” explains Nur, who continued to help with relief efforts even without any adequate supplies for the first two weeks.

“As it was a humanitarian disaster, my role and priority as a midwife was not only to care for pregnant women and provide advice and psychological support to women and children, but I was also there to help tsunami victims with any type of medical attention needed.”

Today, Nur still resides in the coastal village in Aceh Jaya and continues to work as a midwife. Just a five-minute drive from her house lives Eva – the mother who gave birth with the help of Nur atop of the mountain on 26 December 2004.

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The two women, who didn’t know each other before the tragic disaster, are now friends and their children attend the same school.

“I’ll never forget how much Nur helped me that night,” explains Eva, who named her now 10-year-old son Ahlan, despite friends suggesting she call him tsunami. “Even though she was worried because she hadn’t even been in touch with her husband when she met me that night, she was calm, didn’t panic and kept me relaxed throughout my delivery. I will forever be thankful to Nur for her help.”

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