The Bell Jar

BANDA ACEH AIRPORT, Indonesia—Bob Bell sat on a plastic trunk full of medical supplies and took a much-needed water break. He hadn’t slept more than about four hours a night in weeks; he wore trainers, red shorts, and a white T-shirt every day that I saw him, which was most days. Sometimes a stethoscope was wrapped around his neck, sometimes not. Sometimes he held bunches of foil packages of penicillin in his hand, or medical bandages and tape, or water. Sometimes he carried nothing, but darted from one tent to another at the Banda Aceh Airport, where he was stationed as a medical volunteer. But I only ever saw Bob Bell sitting down once.

“This is really not me,” he told me the first time we met. “I don’t give to Greenpeace, or Jews for Jesus, or anything. But this was such magnitude, I had to go. I had to find a way to help.”

Bell is a venture capitalist from Reading, Mass., with intermediate EMT training that he’d never really used. He told me he was seeing things here that he’d trained for but never seen in real life: gangrene and tetanus. Amputations were routine. Lots and lots of amputations. Bell was also a former Army Ranger, so he knew, as one USAID officer who’d befriended him put it, “how to live in the dirt.”

“Dirt” is a euphemism here for “hell.” The ground was wet and muddy and filled with the trash of box lunches for the many workers who’d taken up temporary residence at the airport. There was blood and human waste and putrid smells. The workers were French and Germans and Chinese, Australians and Americans and Pakistanis. From the air, the tents were colorful and resembled a sort of circus, save for the fact that half of them had an enormous red cross draped over the top.

Bell was one of many, many people who felt they had something to offer and simply walked out of their lives and into this one. The scale of the tsunami’s devastation is almost impossible to imagine. I have seen it myself and read many, many accounts by other writers attempting to describe it to people far away. But it’s like trying to explain infinity. All you can do is try to contain the details: the tiny photo album rotting and stuck under a tent of 2 x 4s, the broken picture frames and single shoes and silverware. Several weeks after the tsunami, the smell of decaying flesh wasn’t so much blanketing the city as concentrating in certain areas, so that driving along you’d quite suddenly get a whiff, and then you’d gag, and then it’d be gone. Fifty yards later, it’d happen again. This made it almost worse. There were bodies you couldn’t see, bodies you knew were mixed into the rubble that sat inside an overturned bus or half a house.
I chose to stay among the living. My birthday is Dec. 26; this year it was not only the day of the tsunami, it also marked when I officially outlived my mother, who died at 35. It was a birthday that had always been a milestone for me, and so when the tsunami hit, I’d been thinking about my mother a lot. When I went to Aceh, I thought about her more—how, when I was 9, I’d watched her die through her bedroom door. She’d had cancer for years, and on a Friday afternoon in 1977, with an oxygen tank stationed beside her, she said, “I can’t breathe.” And then she stopped. I thought about how I’d want strangers to act if she’d been a body under that rubble, and so affording them some distant reverence was the only thing I could quietly do. Anyway, you didn’t need to search out the horror in Aceh; it found you wherever you were.

From the moment I met Bob Bell, he seemed to be a man in the throes of colossal change—as was everyone there, frankly. He was both wired and calm at the same time, always busy in an adrenalin-fueled way. But he held a darkness around the rim of his eyes, an unspeakable sadness. He always made it a point to smile and look into the eyes of those Acehnese who’d found refuge at the airport. “Even with 9/11 survivors,” he told me, “they easily got medical treatment uptown, or they got on planes and went to other area hospitals. But here, these people had no place to get help, no way to travel. Half the doctors are dead.”

When Bell saw the news accounts, he booked a commercial flight from Boston to Jakarta and figured he’d make contacts and find a way to help once he landed. He told his office he’d be gone three weeks. He told six or seven friends, who’d laughed incredulously and asked why he would do such a thing. He felt his wife didn’t really understand, either. No one did, except maybe his kids who, he thought, might have felt a little proud of him. “These people [in the military] are leaving families for months and months at a time,” he said. “I’m only gone three weeks.”

The day we met, IV bags were hung like laundry on twine behind Bell, awaiting usage. Aid relief has an angry sound, full of helicopters and crackling radios and truck engines and human cacophony. People yell and they run and they cry. Bell wore a WWJD cloth bracelet around his wrist, and the fact that he does not bring up his faith seems powerful. If he did, I’d probably walk away from him.

“A lot of people asked me how I could possibly come,” he said. He looked forward as he said this, at the green cloth wall of the tent. “It’s more like, ‘How can I not come?’ “

After he landed in Jakarta, he contacted the U.S. Embassy, who had him wait around for a day or two as they stumbled through the chaos of trying to determine what came first and who went where and what had to be done and how. No aid effort in human history has ever been this vast. Bell took a commercial flight and hooked up with the International Organization for Migration. He was assigned to do whatever was needed, wherever. He humped supplies or treated patients or distributed medicine. He scurried back and forth all day working what the military would call “war hours.” He slept very little, ate from box lunches filled with American junk food when he could. And he thought about his family. All the time, he said. Every day.

The last time I saw Bell, he was emerging from a Spanish medical tent, and his red shorts and white T-shirt and trainers were soaked from the afternoon monsoons, and he had a stethoscope around his neck again and was walking fast through the puddles on his way to another tent. He gave me a quick wave and a smile and looked like he needed sleep. He had mud on one calf. Then he disappeared, and I remembered him telling me that no matter what, and no matter how imperative his work here was, nothing would keep him from being home by Jan. 21. It was his daughter’s birthday, and no way in the world he would miss it. “I made a promise to her,” he said, and I knew Bell was not a man who’d break promises.