‘Are You Ready to Die Today?’: What Really Happened in Post-Tsunami Indonesia

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, international aid groups hired local contractors to carry out reconstruction efforts. But not all of the money donated ended up in the right hands. A Red Cross whistleblower investigates human trafficking–and what happens when good works go bad
Young girls in Indonesia

The photos in this story depict some of the people affected by worker abuse and human trafficking in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2004. Because these activities are still under investigation, many of the names of people in this story have been changed to protect their identities

Eva met me for breakfast at my hotel in Medan, the sprawling capital of north Sumatra in Indonesia, in the summer of 2015. Almost before we sat down, she said, “Are you ready to die today?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think so.”

“I am not afraid to die,” she said.

She meant it. Eva was a former schoolteacher who had been helping me on the investigation for years and was now working full time as my assistant. After breakfast, we went to my room to grab my daypack and make a plan. Even though we had decided we were going to follow the lead to the end, we still thought it wise to have some kind of backup. We had decided we needed backup because we were not sure yet if we could trust Mulyo, the labour agent who a few weeks earlier had told Eva, “I have a story about tsunami workers that you could make a movie about.”

For backup, we called Lae, my old friend from the Indonesian Red Cross, to see if he would come with us. Lae was a wide-smiling, back-slapping Batak man. He had been fired a couple of times by the Red Cross for charges of corruption, and I had guessed that it wasn’t completely without cause. The Yamaha he rode around Medan still had a decal on it from the Saudi Red Crescent; he’d “borrowed” the bike from a relief operation I had run on Nias, an island just off the Sumatran west coast, after an earthquake had destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed thousands in March 2005. Mulyo had told Eva he took 160 of his men to work on an American Red Cross tsunami reconstruction project in late 2008, and that the men, along with hundreds of others, were made to work as slaves. One of them, a man named Otong, had been beaten to death by the guards.

If Mulyo meant to kill the story, meaning, to kill us, a day trip out of the city to a remote village would be the ideal opportunity.

One of the reasons we weren’t sure we could trust Mulyo was that labour agents often doubled as human traffickers, which meant he would have good reason to not want the story to be told. When he offered to take us to a place called Stabat to meet the men who had witnessed the fatal beating, we hesitated. If Mulyo meant to kill the story, meaning, to kill us, a day trip out of the city to a remote village would be the ideal opportunity. But it seemed there was no other way to get the story, so we agreed to go.

Lae answered my call, and I explained what I wanted. He was one of just a few of my Red Cross colleagues brave enough to remain a friend after I had blown the whistle over the post-tsunami reconstruction human trafficking I had discovered while working as an overseas delegate for the Canadian Red Cross in Aceh province, Indonesia, in December 2007. Lae was not a big man, nor armed. Having another person along might make Mulyo think twice. Three would be harder to disappear than two. But Lae told me he could not come. He didn’t say why. He did say that he could stay in touch by mobile phone throughout the day, to keep tabs on us. Eva and I could let Mulyo know that Lae was tracking us, if the need arose.

We met Mulyo later that day and spent an uneventful night at his house in his village on the outskirts of Medan.

The road had potholes in it the size of buffalo wallows. Locals said they were not potholes but village wells. Some stretches of the two-lane highway up the flat, coastal plain where upper Sumatra meets the Malacca Straits were as cratered as a carpet-bombed supply route. It was hard to believe that even in Indonesia a road could be so hopelessly ruined.

According to the map on my cell phone, Stabat was supposed to be on the main road north from Medan, which was the last major stop for labour agents before shuttling ethnic Javanese construction workers—at least a half million of them—into war-torn and tsunami-wrecked Aceh province during the tsunami “reconstruction.” Indonesia’s Outsourcing Law of 2003 had turned all construction workers into simply another supplied commodity with no more enforceable rights than shipments of wood or brick. After bringing such human cargo to Red Cross, UN and other projects in Aceh —the spot worst hit by the tsunami—the contractors and subcontractors and agents stole most of the money meant for the workers. They recruited the workers with lies and kept them working with false hope. They promised the workers that tomorrow, next week, next month, they would be paid. Some of us in the Red Cross knew that our partners in the reconstruction were traffickers. And by ambition and negligence and our own lies and cover ups about the problem, we were also guilty of trafficking. We were no different.

Man in Indonesia

Ucok, a local man who had driven me in from the airport a few weeks earlier, had said a lot of donor money ended up here after the tsunami. Medan was the first stop on the way out of Aceh. The contractors bought land and homes and more businesses with the money. The subcons bought more wives. The agents, or mandors, blew the workers’ money in fancy hotels, discos, massage parlours and brothels in the city: ones with “Bali” or “Eden” in their names. Medan was “The Texas of Asia,” Ucok had said. The Wild West of the East.

I began to wonder if there was a better road north out of Medan than this one. This could not be a major route. Was Mulyo taking us on a detour, a goose chase? Was he trying to keep us off our bearings? I was surprised he had not made us wear blindfolds.

The land of the tree-shorn plain we were riding through seemed as ruined and hopeless as the road. This was where the preman gangster death squads had assassinated tens of thousands of peasant farmers (and elsewhere at least two million others accused of being communists). Every part of the land now had been turned to some desperate use or lay smouldering or decaying. Cemeteries—both Muslim and Christian—stood jumbled in or beside the fields, in and around the villages. Like other places that used to be jungle, everything—even human life—seemed to grow out of death.

Mulyo talked non-stop as he eased the SUV around and through the ruins of the road. He told us some young hoodlums had been trying to extort money from him on some of his projects, and said the older premans had built a factory on his own land without paying him. I was not surprised he owned land. Only the night before, Mulyo had told us that he was a very poor man, but I had long suspected he was hiding things. He kept other secrets, too. The location of the grave and surviving family of the dead man, Otong, for example, and contact with the men who had witnessed the fatal beating.

Just beyond one of the worst of the potholes, where the SUV had bottomed out with an ugly bang, Mulyo pointed to another road to the right. “That way goes to Otong’s village,” he said. “But the road is so bad, we would have to get out and walk.”

A lead to follow later, I thought. I pulled out my cell phone and, pretending to photograph a nearby house, used the phone’s camera to geo-tag the intersection. Maybe I could use the coordinates to find my own way to Otong’s village someday.

“You know, Otong only complained of being tired,” Mulyo said. “We did not know he would die from the beating.”

Mulyo then started telling us the story again, sometimes with himself on the outside as a subcon, other times on the inside as if he were one of the workers. He could be unreliable, my gut said. Which was why we needed to find other witnesses.

“My men were working on an American Red Cross sewer project in Calang on the west coast of Aceh,” he said. “The GAM guards on the project watched us. The former rebels were everywhere. Even in the coffee shop, they carried guns. They used them to keep the workers from trying to escape.”

The separatist guerrilla army of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM)—or Free Aceh Movement—had agreed to a peace agreement with the Indonesia government in 2006 in order to be able to participate in the reconstruction of Aceh after the tsunami. They saw it as their chance to make new lives after having lived in the jungle for up to two decades. As part of the peace agreement, the government set up an ex-combatant “reintegration” agency which stipulated that the Red Cross and other agencies hire the GAM as contractors, security guards and drivers, among other roles, despite the fact that they had no construction experience. The GAM subcontracted projects, taking their cut, but human trafficking was one of the results, though the GAM were not alone in this. There was abuse piled on abuse.

“The GAM men would sit at the café table with their arms folded with one hand under their shirt on a gun,” said Mulyo, as we drove. “Sometimes one of the guards would pull the gun a little bit from his coat, just so you could see it.” He folded his arms to show us. “The others would put the guns under the table. The tables had hooks under them to hang the guns.”

Mulyo told us he tried to help his men escape when the Red Cross contractor would not pay. “Workers had to get permission to leave the town from the Datuk, the big boss of the GAM. He would not let them go. My workers asked to go home, even if it meant no money at all for their work.”

It sounded like a good excuse for Mulyo to not pay his men. Who knew? The tsunami fund was almost too huge to spend, but the Red Cross still awarded contracts to the lowest bidders, who typically did not properly calculate in labour costs or ignored them altogether to get the bids down. Even for the less corrupt subcons and mandors, with the GAM and others taking their cuts, profits could only come from one place: the workers’ pay. Other mandors and subcons had told us that already. The problem was systemic and cultural.

Mulyo continued: “I would tell my workers, ‘Today after work, we will go fishing until night. Then if we see any van passing on the road, we will flag it down and you can get in and go home. Tell the driver to take them to my house in Medan.’ Someone there would pay him. I told them not to bring clothes. Nothing else but what they were wearing.”

We finally left the main road, such as it was, and turned onto a dirt road running through cane fields. Near a bridge, we stopped to pick up an old woman hitchhiking. Mulyo asked the woman where she needed to go and then continued his story.

“I helped about 70 per cent of my men escape that way,” Mulyo said. “We smuggled them out and back to Medan.”

“How did they know if the drivers would help them?” I asked.

“The drivers were all Bataknese. The Bataks were anti-GAM because the GAM had terrorized them during the war. So, it was mainly the Bataknese who helped rescue my workers.”

We left the old woman at a small bridge over a muddy stream. A few minutes later, we came to another one of Mulyo’s secrets, in a quiet village surrounded by sugar cane fields. It was a small house under a stand of trees, the home of Mulyo’s istri muda, his “young wife,” the fourth and latest.

The house was small and pretty and modern. A furniture suite of carved wood and hand-woven upholstery dominated the living room. The wires and boxes of a large TV and karaoke machine and stereo system lined the walls. Gold-framed photos crowded the spaces above. Mulyo disappeared through a curtained door. A teenage girl entered the room from another door and brought a tray of sweet tea in glasses to a table between the heavy furniture. Mulyo reappeared from the curtained room. “The girl’s mother is staying in her bedroom,” he said. “She does not feel well.”

I asked to use the washroom. When I returned, Eva whispered to me that Mulyo had just told her we would not be meeting any of his own workers, the ones who had worked on the American Red Cross project in Aceh. I was stunned. Had we come all this way for nothing? I pressed Mulyo as politely as I could. “I thought you said your workers would be here in Stabat. From the American Red Cross tsunami project. The ones who saw what happened to Otong.”

Mulyo jumped from the couch, fast for a man of his girth. “I am trying,” he barked, no longer smiling. “If you had come five years ago, it would have been very easy!” He walked out of the room and returned a moment later. He sat back on the couch, smiling again. “Now it is time for us to relax. I am going to cook duck for you.”

He left the house and came back with a bulging burlap sack. There were a few wisps of duck down at the mouth of the sack. Blood pinked through the weave of the fabric and dripped from the bottom corners. He went into the kitchen but returned a moment later and sat back on the couch. Perhaps to make up for lying about meeting his workers, he started to tell the story of Otong again. “The night Otong was attacked, it was raining. Like many workers at that time, Otong was sick with diarrhea. He needed to go to the toilet. There was no toilet at the barracks. So he had to go out to an outdoor toilet. Because it was raining, Otong took a sarong to cover his head and body from the rain. He held the sarong over his head. This made the GAM suspect that he was trying to escape.” He paused, as if interrupting himself. “We don’t know for sure it was GAM, of course. We know that it was Acehnese men with guns.”

One of the GAM—the one we called Bule—put his machine gun to my head. He said, ‘You talk too much about money.

A rooster crowed. It began to rain, and the rain soon dripped from the tin edge of the roof and sheeted the patio. Cigarette smoke hung heavy in the room, balking against the new cool of the rain, clinging at the doorposts like a child before school.

“Otong went to the toilet,” said Mulyo. “He started going at around ten p.m. and had to go out every hour after that, because of the diarrhea. The distance was about thirty or forty metres. Otong went from house to house, trying to hide from the rain under the roof overhangs. On the way back to the barracks, he was attacked.”

I interrupted Mulyo to ask if he knew exactly who did the beating. Mulyo said it was probably the GAM hired as “guards” on the project. “They worked for Doctor Niko, the contractor.”

Mulyo said he had seen Doctor Niko make payoffs to the GAM commander right in the American Red Cross headquarters. He said one night after he had confronted Doctor Niko about the workers pay, about half a dozen of the GAM guards took him up onto a hill overlooking the project. “One of the GAM—the one we called Bule—put his machine gun to my head. He said, ‘You talk too much about money. We gave you rice for the men. Isn’t that enough? Do you know what I had to eat during the war? Snake, wild pig and leaves. Or nothing.’”

This part of his story made me recall what Mulyo had told me when I’d first met him in Medan weeks before. “The GAM told me they considered my workers volunteers.’”

Outside the house, the rain had stopped and there was a sound of chess pieces being scrambled and set up for a match somewhere on the veranda. I didn’t know who was out there.

Mulyo said Otong spent three nights in hospital. When he was released, the GAM commander allowed him to leave Calang. He died a week later, back at his home, here in Stabat. I imagined the grave was somewhere along the narrow road we passed on the way to Mulyo’s. I had the GPS coordinates on the geo-tagged photo. Mulyo did not know that. It would be important to go there, to find the family, to find someone to verify the story.

Through the doorway, I saw an untroubled boy driving sheep on the wet, red clay of the road in front of the house. The smell of the ducks cooking was making me hungry. Two men arrived at the door. Mulyo introduced them.

“These are the men I called to meet you today,” he said. “They are victims from a Canadian Red Cross project.”

I was surprised. I had never expected to find Canadian victims here near Medan. I thought they had all been recruited in faraway Java. I had not come here to look for Canadian victims.

Mulyo said he needed to take his istri muda to see a doctor. He left us to speak with the two men from the Canadian Red Cross project. Sariono was 34, from a nearby village. He had short hair and looked directly into our faces. His friend, Budiman, was 28, from the same village. His hair was a little longer, and he was too shy to look directly at anyone. They had both worked in Aceh. Sariono said he went there in 2007 with a busload of workers from nearby villages. “A mandor came to my friend, and then my friend recruited me, too. The mandor gave fifty dollars to my family, and offered us five dollars per day for our work. They split us up. They took twenty for a different project. They told us we could all go home after three months.”

Sariono’s fingernails were long and curling, like those of the GAM soldier I had met years ago who told me of adopting a tiger cub while he was hiding and fighting in the jungle. Sariono said he had become dizzy with headaches all the time because of the long hours and extra work. “The mandor promised us more money if we would work overtime. We worked straight through for a stretch of five months with no Sundays. We could not escape.” He hesitated. His face went red with anger. “We went six and a half months without pay, except for the hundred dollars paid out in bits here and there for food, plus the little advance we had left with our families at the beginning.”

I asked him if someone from the Canadian Red Cross staff ever checked on their welfare, or ever asked if they were getting paid.

“The whole time we were working, the Red Cross only talked to the contractors and mandors,” he said. “They did not talk with us workers.”

“So no one from the Red Cross ever tried to help?” I asked.

“No. Never.”

Sariono said on the day the project finished, the mandor told the men to wait for him for one day. “‘I will go to the office to arrange pay for all of you,’ he said. ‘I need to go back to the office to get the money.’ Until today, we have never seen him again.”

I caught the implication. Rain started to fall hard again on the metal roof.

“We know it was the Canadian Red Cross because of the emblem on the white people’s shirts and the symbol on their vehicle. We worked for them in Khaju.”

Khaju, a small suburb of Banda Aceh, just north across the big bridge over the Aceh River, was one of our Canadian Red Cross tsunami projects. It was far from Stabat. Not a place two unschooled construction workers from hundreds of kilometres away would know about. Not unless they had been there.

“The woman from the Canadian Red Cross came to the project once and gave us T-shirts,” Sariono said.

“Do you still have the shirt?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “We sold the T-shirts later for food money, before we started walking home from the project. We were starving.”

A family in Aceh, Indonesia

I had heard stories from other trafficked tsunami-reconstruction workers about selling their belongings and clothing for food money on Red Cross projects. A Canadian Red Cross T-shirt traded for food didn’t surprise me, but it did sicken me all over again.

“She had red or blonde hair,” Sariono said. “She was thin. There was a man with short hair, too. Tall, not too old.”

Probably a high-level visit, I mused. Someone from HQ in Banda Aceh, or from Ottawa, on a quick tour of tsunami projects on the north and west coasts of Aceh. A Canadian Santa riding down the sun-scorched road, tossing inedible goodies from an air-conditioned sleigh.

“We never knew her name,” said Sariono. “We only knew our mandor’s name. All thirty of us were not paid. We got nothing.”

I was familiar with that part of the story before Sariono began. It was too common. In fact, it was and is the rule. In all the times we had been tracking down construction workers from among the tens of thousands that labour agents trafficked to Red Cross tsunami projects in Aceh, I had yet to meet one who had been paid what he was promised. Most were not paid at all. Some had never gone home and never will go home. In the months that followed, Eva and I heard contradictory versions of various survival narratives. Budiman, by way of example, later told us that he and other workers did not sell their Red Cross T-shirts. We also heard varying accounts of Mulyo’s role in helping workers escape, as well as differing versions of Otong’s killing. These stories, we knew, were altered or edited depending on the teller’s sense of what might get him or her out of or into trouble. These were often life and death matters.

An hour passed as we listened to Sariono tell the story. Eventually, Mulyo returned. He pulled up a chair while the teenage daughter finished cooking the duck in the kitchen. Mulyo took over answering, as if he had been present throughout the conversation, as if he had been a victim himself. He knew a lot about both ends of things. He explained more about how the trafficking worked on Red Cross projects. As he spoke I was taken with the feeling that he was offering us a kind of confession. Budiman said very little. He only nodded at the things Sariono and Mulyo were saying.

We paused our conversation for dinner and sat in a circle on the floor around a large bowl of rice and smaller bowls with the portions of two stewed ducks and other bowls of onion pickles and boiled greens. There were also glasses already filled with hot sweet tea. After supper, Eva and I decided that we should return to Medan that night. While we waited for our food to digest, I told Mulyo the rest of my story. I told him how I had been the spokesperson for the Red Cross/Red Crescent tsunami operation in Aceh, the biggest ever to that point, for the first year of its multi-billion dollar operation. I told him how I had discovered slave labour on projects during a later mission for the Canadian Red Cross. I told him how I had fought with my bosses over the trafficking and had resigned and finally took the fight public. I told him how the workers and their families and I had lost that fight. And so, I had come back. To try again.

When I finished, Mulyo half-closed his eyes. “But I also know that you, Virgil … you do not want to do anything to hurt the reputation of the Red Cross.”

It is hard to say why, but I didn’t tell Mulyo what I was thinking: What is an organization’s reputation compared to the suffering of thousands of workers and their families?

After supper, Mulyo said he was ready to drive us back. He briefly disappeared outside before returning with a wooden cage with two large ducks inside. We got in his SUV and he loaded the cage behind my seat.

I could see the confusion and fear in the ducks’ eyes. They were the same species I had eaten an hour before. It was suddenly disorienting to be so close to animals we’d caged for our use. Feathers for our beds. Meat for our plates. Whatever we wanted. Whatever our purpose. Mulyo started the engine. We drove off about the same time as Sariono and Budiman left, two workers who had gained little but misery on a Canadian Red Cross project. Misery and a T-shirt they had to trade for food.

Indonesia 4 We drove out through the sugarcane, thicker than a forest, and with the tropic light failing quickly. Rather than taking us back out onto the main road, Mulyo made a detour. He drove fast and would not explain where we were going. Ten minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of an empty house. Three men stepped out of the darkness. My heart skipped. We’d been careless. I slipped my cell phone out of its case and snapped a GPS photo of the empty house. I hurriedly sent the photo to Lae back in Medan and texted him: “Here now. Will check back in 30 min.” I looked at the dark, vacant house. Was this where Lae was going to find our bodies? But instead of taking us into the empty house, Mulyo and his men had us follow them across the road to a general store closed for the night. A man opened the door, and we filed into a room next to a counter shrouded by a hanging garden of foil-packaged snack foods. Mulyo asked us to sit on the bare concrete floor. We sat. The floor was warm. The air was still.

As we arranged ourselves on the floor, I received a text back from Lae: “Tebar Emas.” Mulyo was distracted in talking with his men, so I had a quick peek at an online dictionary, which told me that tebar meant to share and emas was gold. What did that mean? Share the wealth? Was Lae negotiating a rescue price?

Mulyo introduced us to the other men. One was the village chief. From their deference, it seemed the rest of the men worked for Mulyo. Three sat across from us and two others who had appeared out of nowhere stayed up at the counter, like guards. After the introductions, Mulyo started to make a speech. I could pick out that it was about Aceh and NGOs and ethics and responsibilities. He spoke in even longer and more confusing circles than usual. Finally, one of the men across from me, 40-year-old Toha, was able to speak. Toha said he had worked on an NGO tsunami project in Aceh.

“Our contractor and his men were GAM. They did not try to hide that fact,” said Toha. “And the subcon, he always brought a gun to the job site.” Toha said he worked on the project to rebuild a school. “We weren’t being paid. And sometimes they made us work twenty-four-hour shifts.”

Most of the workers never got paid in Aceh. Thousands even from around here. You don’t even have to go as far as Medan to look for them.

Toha said he asked the subcon for permission to leave. The subcon only offered to pay him $20 or three months of work. The subcon said he would send it to Toha later with one of his friends. Toha had no choice but to agree if he wanted permission to leave. His friends never received his pay or their own.

“Most of the workers never got paid in Aceh,” Toha said. “Thousands even from around here. You don’t even have to go as far as Medan to look for them. Just go to any village around here. None of them got paid.”

Again, heavy rain began to pound the world outside. A big man in a striped green shirt got up to close the shutters and doors. I realized we had been sitting there over half an hour and I had forgotten to contact Lae. I texted him that everything seemed fine. Mulyo again began preaching about ethics and responsibilities to the dead, shouting over the rain. When the twin storms of rain and Mulyo’s voice subsided a little, one of the other men began to talk. He spoke of a relative who worked in Aceh and then died when he came home. It sounded like Otong. Mulyo interrupted him, almost with a pounce. “They are not here for that one!” he shouted.

Man in IndonesiaOn the bone-jarring ride back to Medan, I showed Eva the text message I had received from Lae about “gold.” I asked her if it meant Lae had been demanding money to rescue us.

“Oh, no,” she said, laughing. “Tebar Emas is the name of the village where you sent the GPS coordinates from. Lae was only verifying our location.”

Mulyo started rambling about sin and how helping us would make everything right again. “I am a guilty man! A guilty man!” he suddenly shouted, swerving the SUV sharply around another giant pothole. “Maybe I am a sinner!”

We finally turned off the cratered highway on to a street leading the last kilometre or so towards Mulyo’s neighbourhood. As we passed through an intersection, Mulyo said, “That is where we would pick up most of the men who we took to Aceh for the American Red Cross project. Many of them lived right near here.”

He said more but too quickly for me to understand it all. I poked Eva. “Is he saying they lived here?” “Yes,” she said. “He says that the men we are looking for live right here, in this neighbourhood.” “But we passed through here this morning. We could have…”


“Why didn’t he bring us here today?”

“He says we cannot stop here to talk to any of them.”

“Why not?”

“Because they are angry with him about their pay.”

“Mulyo didn’t pay them?”

“He says he told them he is also poor. But they are still blaming him, saying he kept their money. So he will not take us to talk with them.”

He did not slow down (although months later he helped us interview the workers who’d been enslaved, starved, and who witnessed the killing of Otong). We soon arrived back at Mulyo’s village. He parked the SUV beside the main road. When we got out, he fetched the cage of ducks from the back and handed it to me. The ducks had been so quiet, I had forgotten all about them. They stared at me through the bars of the cage. They did not move and did not make a sound.

• Virgil Grandfield is a former overseas delegate for the Red Cross. He is doing graduate work in social justice and literary non-fiction at the University of Lethbridge and is writing a book about labour trafficking in Indonesia during Red Cross post-tsunami reconstruction work.

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