Through my eyes: One Red Cross aid worker’s experience with Indonesia’s back-to-back disasters

Written by Sydney Morton

With relief efforts only two months underway on the island of Lombok, a massive earthquake and tsunami ravaged another Indonesian island, Sulawesi.

Sydney Morton spent a month supporting earthquake relief efforts in Lombok, Indonesia.

Last week as I left Lombok, Indonesia, it felt a little like leaving home. And certainly, like leaving a piece of my heart with the local community and my extended family of Indonesian Red Cross volunteers. During my month supporting earthquake relief efforts in Lombok, I experienced some terrifying moments with the residents and local volunteers — as powerful tremors continued for 7+ weeks. As you can imagine we shared tears, hugs and heartache.

Mr. Raosiadi said with deep emotion “I spent my life creating this home for my family.” His sons are helping him to rebuild after their house was destroyed in the earthquakes.

On the northern part of the island, 75% of all structures were demolished in a series of five earthquakes in July and August, including one of 7.0 magnitude. In some villages, not a single home remained. Hundreds lost their lives and thousands were injured.


The tragic quakes are only one side of the story. The Indonesian Red Cross volunteers and I traveled to villages to teach skills in shelter, health and preparedness — but walked away learning so much more. We learned from the strength and spirit of affected community members in Lombok. Day in and day out, we saw first-hand what it means to be strong, resilient and hopeful.

Local entrepreneur Fauziah’s explains with determination: “my shop was destroyed but I will provide for my family no matter what.”


We met newborn babies who entered the world amidst the earthquakes. Experienced joy as schoolchildren played and forgot the trauma they endured. Stood beside elders as temporary shelters were reconstructed on the land they’ve called home for generations. Watched entrepreneurs restart businesses next to their destroyed storefronts. Celebrated and gave thanks with residents as new foundations were laid for their decimated mosques and schools. Felt the unwavering love people in Lombok have for their neighbors and grandchildren.

We realized that home is home, no matter how damaged.

Eight-year-old Dina jumps rope with Red Cross volunteers who are helping students at her school cope with the emotional impacts of prolonged, frightening aftershocks in Lombok. Many children are living in tents and makeshift shelters with their families.


I also learned from the Indonesian Red Cross volunteers what the principle of humanity truly means. Commitment and dedication do not even begin to scratch the surface. Many of the volunteers who I worked with in Lombok endured immense loss themselves: of their homes, belongings, jobs and loved ones. Two volunteers — friends and fellow colleagues — also tragically lost their lives during the operation. Volunteers worked long days and slept in hot tents at night, as frightening aftershocks continued for months on end.

Baby-boy Julia Pratama arrived the morning after a devastating earthquake. “In a scary time, he is our gift” Aminah says adoringly. The Red Cross helped provide clean water, diapers and food to little ones like Julia and their families.

And yet, despite their own devastation, Indonesian Red Cross volunteers continued delivering services and hope with compassion and warmth.


What made this goodbye even harder was receiving word on Friday, September 28, that a powerful 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck Sulawesi, Indonesia — only 48 hours after my plane touched down in Washington, DC. As I helped account for the whereabouts of my new friends scattered across Indonesia, tsunami waves crashed. Leaving new communities, an ocean away from Lombok, obliterated in its wake.

Neneng, 25, shared with conviction: “I believe in the principle of humanity.” She volunteers with the Indonesian Red Cross to help children prepare for and stay safe in disasters.

After spending weeks talking with families in Lombok about their fear of a tsunami or the potential of an “even bigger one” hitting — the unthinkable happened 1,000+ kilometers away in Sulawesi.


Although I am not in Sulawesi today, I have an idea about what the devastation entails. That children may yell “gempa,” which means earthquake in the local language, as loud trucks drive by. That parents will put on brave faces as they consider how to begin picking up the pieces. That volunteers will put on their Red Cross vests with strength every morning, and return home to their own daunting reality each night.

I also know that hope will prevail. That home is home, no matter how damaged.

“I’ve lived here all my life. This is home.” Sarimah, 70, said unequivocally. Near her home in Central Lombok, residents are working to rebuild two cornerstones of the community — their neighborhood school and mosque.


The American Red Cross has thus far contributed $1 million to relief efforts on the islands of Sulawesi and Lombok — in addition to deploying five disaster responders.

Prior to the earthquake, the American Red Cross worked alongside the Indonesian Red Cross to prepare communities — including through disaster simulations, teaching earthquake preparedness in schools, and providing first aid training.

Sydney Morton is an American Red Cross staff member who spent a month in Lombok, Indonesia, on behalf of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and in support of the Indonesian Red Cross (locally referred to as Palang Merah Indonesia).