The women stood in a circle, all wearing their white cloaks for prayers. They were chanting prayers that they would be able to live their lives showing strength and resolve and also that their voices would be listened to.
Strength and resolve are two words that have become the special possession of the Acehnese people. This is the message delivered by the Inong Aceh Theatre troupe in their recent performance Tsunami and Tsunami. The story which these women tell is that the life experience of the Inong-Inong is one full of threat, loss and fear.
They first turn the clock back to when military violence and the gun ruled under the pavilion of Mecca, as Aceh is known. Then women lost their husbands, children and relatives. The suffering never stopped, but was only to be followed by that massive natural calamity that was to befall the land of Cut Nyak Dien. The great wave arrived. They fled, as fast and far as they could, from the great black height of water that chased them. They fled to a mountain, or rather a hill called Krueng Raya. This was their refuge then for days afterwards. Hunger and illness, as well as trauma, savaged these refugees. The scene when the tsunami hit is one of darkness and the sound of mountainous ocean waters. The atmosphere was tense. The audience startled to attention. Silence, then there was the sound of a woman sitting beside me in the audience, wearing a white head shawl, sobbing.
One by one the actors told their story of how they escaped those waters – as high as a coconut tree – that chased them. One was saved by grabbing onto a floating mattress that passed her bye. Another was caught in a tree. Yet another lost husband and children.
These were some of things one saw during the two hour performance at the Utan Kayu Theatre on 16 and 17 June. All of the performers were Acehnese women who had directly experience the tsunami and who had been living in the barracks in the village of Lamnga, Mesjid Raya in Aceh Besar. Tusnami and Tsunami was directed by Lena Simanjuntak and used a community facilitator, Ferry HS.
The performance goes on to deal with the situation since the tsunami. The women tell of the lack of progress and the problems with and lack of accountability of the Body for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Aceh and Nias (BRR). They are critical too of all the goings-on of the NGOs, both local and international. These NGOs offer many different kinds of programs but often have a bureaucratic approach oblivious to the emergency situation people face. They demand that the communities come up with project proposals, for example, in the midst of their losses. The play also investigated the poor conditions in the camps as well as the construction of housing that was not suitable to the environment or not even worthy of human habitation.
The brochure explaining the performance quotes one of the women performers, Halimah: “When the tsunami struck I was thrown into the river but was saved because I was able to climb aboard a floating mattress. I will never be able to forget what happened. There are so many NGOs from so many countries working in Aceh now. They all say that they have “participatory programs”, but it is not true. Many of their programs just sow confusion amongst us so that we ourselves don’t know anymore what we need. We want to explain this all to you through these performances.”
Perhaps what Halimas is saying is the truth, Halimas and her friends have come to Jakarta with their theatre bringing a real spirit of Acehnese solidarity. They feel free to speak out, to criticize, to confront the government and the NGOS with their posters, and indeed to confront reality itself. Perhaps they would not be able to do this in the refugee camps. Perhaps. But this time, these women, victims first of military violence and then of the tsunami, now speak out confidently, reconstructing their experiences through this new media of the theatre.
Lena Simanjuntak, the director who does not liked to be called a director, explained that the process used was participatory. The women told their stories and then it was ordered into a scene. Every story performed on the stage is the story of an experience they themselves have been through. The performance is intended to educate and to strengthen the community. Through a collective activity they uncover and pull apart their shared pain, and their shared lack of understanding. Together they strive to understand the community’s suffering. They hope that this collective effort will produce a real optimism and solidarity for future struggles in their capacity as human beings.
Producing Tsunami and Tsunami was not without its problems. One issue was that it was very unusual for women to perform in theatre in Aceh. It is considered an improper thing for a woman to do. But this patriarchal viewpoint was overcome. They were able to convince people that the theatre was useful and played a positive role. Indeed, the theatre could also have a “healing” role as one of the performers, Yusniar explained. “It is a strange experience joining this theatre. Before I found it very difficult to talk about my problems, especially personal problems. Now I can do this, at the very least on the performance. I have won a better understanding too of the difficulties that other families and parents have experienced in my village. It is exhausting for the village sometimes servicing them all when they come: the NGOs, the BRR and the journalists. Through this play we can explain so much, so that they don’t need to ask again when thinking about future aid.”
The Inong Aceh Theatre group, with its performance of Tsunami and Tsunami, hopes that it can leave behind its pain, hopes that people will listen and hear their voice. The Inong Aceh Theatre will also perform in the compound arena of the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission of Violence against women on 23 June.
Jakarta, 23 June 06