THIS is the most beautiful and practical leper colony I have ever seen.’ So said Dr Offringa, a Dutch medic, when he visited the Salvation Army colony for lepers in Pulau Si Canang, Indonesia, in 1913. Together with five other doctors he was deeply impressed by the care shown to the patients. The colony is now in government hands but The Salvation Army has not forgotten what it started and its ministry today, though different, is still ‘beautiful’.
Twenty years before Dr Offringa and his colleagues paid their visit, a number of rich inhabitants of Medan had asked The Salvation Army to open a shelter for lepers. These patients were outcasts and lived away from the cities and towns, without any medical or physical care. Commissioner J. W. de Groot, the Salvation Army territorial commander at that time, sent Staff-Captain Berney and his wife to Medan to set up a colony for lepers. While the Berneys were in charge, six large dormitories, a dining hall and a pharmacy were built.
For many years the inhabitants of Medan, the capital of Sumatra, supported the work, giving practical help and money.
Before the Japanese occupation – between 1940 and 1945 – 420 patients lived in the colony, although only 105 survived the horrors of the war. Since 1953 the Indonesian Government has not allowed foreigners to be in charge of hospitals and shelters. Because of a lack of national successors, the only solution for the Army was to hand the colony over to the government.
On my visit to Pilau Si Canang, I found it hard to imagine that this was once described as a ‘beautiful’ leper colony. There is an open village now, where the patients and their families live. Their illness is no longer thought to be contagious, so the patients are not seen as a danger to other people, but that does not mean life is easy. The former dormitories are divided into small units, where families with four or five children live in a few square metres. Thin wooden walls try to provide some measure of privacy for the occupants. Needless to say, it does not work very well.
I saw faces without a nose or ears, hands without fingers and stumps where limbs used to be. It is proof that the severity of the disease is still not always recognised. Leprosy can be cured, particularly when patients get medication at an early stage, but too often the children and adults who are infected are hidden from society. Neglecting the disease often leads to infections which in turn go untreated and may lead to amputation being the only possible treatment.
I looked into beautiful dark eyes of little boys and girls. They appeared healthy and their faces and limbs were unaffected by this devastating illness. I enjoyed their smiles. They are living proof that with the right medication leprosy can be cured.
In the closed ward most of the patients are young men from Aceh Province. They can be visited but physical contact is out of the question. Most of them have already had surgery in which part of a leg, hand or arm has been amputated. This is done in a very simple operating theatre, where the instruments and equipment are from another era.
The only visitors from outside are people from The Salvation Army who are in charge of the primary and secondary schools next to the leper colony. The 130 pupils at the schools live in the slums which surround the compound and some of them come from the colony itself. They are all from poor families and the school fees are very low compared to other schools.
The Salvation Army provides their only chance to get the education which will give an opportunity for them to move on, away from this decidedly unhealthy environment.
Major Yusuf Tarusu, his wife Major Ema Tarusu and Captain Rudi Assah visit the patients in the leper colony several times a week. They take an interest in them and not only talk to the patients but also pray with them. Hands without fingers are closed with tenderness. Major Tarusu dedicates these outcasts to God.
Left: Two children from the leper colony
Major Yusuf Tarusu with an amputee
Major Ema Tarusu visits a leprosy sufferer in his home on the colony
Prayer forms an important part of Salvation Army ministry to the leper colony
Some of the children from the colony attend neighbouring Salvation Army schools