Giggling women swarm outside a little gray tent in Block D of a sprawling refugee camp. The attraction is one tiny miracle — 2-month-old Asmaul Tzuchina, swaying peacefully in a cloth hammock.
The baby simply known as Tzuchi, which means “pure” in Acehnese, represents new life and hope for the women who lost children to the earthquake-spawned tsunami nearly a year ago.
Many grieving mothers are desperate to rebuild family and home, even if the latter is just a plastic tent or a cramped barrack. No one has counted all the pregnant women in Indonesia’s tsunami-stricken Aceh province, but UNICEF’s Dr. Brian Sriprahastuti says she doesn’t need statistics to know what’s coming.
“A baby boom,” she says. “We have to do that because if not, we will lose a generation in Aceh.”
UNICEF estimates more than a third of the 216,000 dead or missing in 12 Indian Ocean countries were children — too weak to run, swim or simply hang on.
Surge in pregnancies 'just the beginning'
Sriprahastuti has noticed a surge in pregnancies since August following a flurry of marriages, including mass weddings where hundreds of couples in refugee camps have taken vows to start over. She predicts many of those newlyweds will soon be cradling newborns.
“This is just the beginning,” she says, smiling. “We will be very busy next year.”
Baby Tzuchi’s 23-year-old mother, Erlina, also sees it coming. “Most of my friends here are two months pregnant,” she says, while breast-feeding.
In a patient log book at the Jantho refugee camp, a midwife scans dozens of handwritten names, ages and tent locations. Forty women are listed as pregnant.
Cut Asmika is one of them. She pours sweat as she sits in a sarong, tenderly stroking her bulging belly. Also 23, she is due any day and believes the treasure inside promises escape from the loneliness left by the tsunami.
Asmika’s mother, father and all three siblings were washed away in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island. Scared and alone, she married a man she hardly knew in a mass wedding in February and immediately began trying to start a family.
“I’m the only person to survive, so I’m all alone,” she says softly, sitting on a straw mat in the stuffy tent with a zipper door. “If I have a baby, I will have a friend.”
In another tent, 33-year-old Faridah, also sits on the floor, a television blaring behind her. Children scamper about barefoot and she laughs, as though they’re a family. But then come tears.
The kids belong to neighbors, and the pictures of two smiling faces taped on the plastic wall behind are her lost 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.
All she remembers is grabbing them and running. But the waves ripped them from her arms. She awoke hours later atop a soggy mattress on the ground. Alone.
Miscarriages and more heartbreak
She never found their bodies and continues to visit mass graves to pray for their souls. She and her husband long to start over, but in October she started bleeding aboard a bus home from visiting family during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
She miscarried in her third month.
“I lost my two children, and I want to have a baby so I don’t keep grieving for them,” she says, trying to hide her tears. “Many women, even though they lost some children, they still have some. Not like me. I lost all of them.”
Desperation is pushing some to extremes.
Post-menopausal women are asking midwives if they can still conceive. Some take pregnancy stick tests with them every time they visit the camp toilet. Others in their 40s are risking complications by trying to use the tiny reproductive window they have left.
The waves left a swath of traumatized women across Asia.
In Sri Lanka, some are undergoing operations to try to reverse sterilization procedures. One of those is 31-year-old Arunmugam Shanthi, who lost both her children to the waves. Despite surgery, she remains infertile.
“I will wait for some time,” she says. “If I am not pregnant again, I will kill myself.”
Dangers of pregnancy disregarded
Sriprahastuti, who runs UNICEF’s Safe Motherhood program in Aceh, says most expectant mothers and newborn babies are healthy overall, but pregnancy is risky for any woman over 35. She tells them to visit trained midwives for prenatal checkups and to deliver at a hospital, rather than at home.
But even those who are supposed to warn older women about such dangers are disregarding their own advice.
Asma Sulaiman, a midwife for 20 years, lost five of her six children in the tsunami. At 44, she too is trying to start over.
“If only God gives us one, it will make us happier,” says the soft-spoken woman in a white silk head scarf. “Losing many children — it’s not a little thing. It’s a big thing.”
She miscarried in August but continues to try.
Many Acehnese women are devout Muslims who believe it’s in God’s hands. “Aceh will have a lot of babies,” says 35-year-old Asnidar, who like many Indonesians uses one name. “Although we have no money, we will keep having children.”
Her prayers have already been answered. She is five months pregnant.