Aceh: 10 years after the tsunami

In 2004 a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra, which triggered a tsunami that ultimately claimed the lives of 226,000 people. The scale of the disaster was so destructive that it changed the lives of millions, scarring the souls of those who experienced the full brunt of the waves as well as the land.

Driving down the new highways that now thread across Banda Aceh, it was hard to imagine what the landscape must have looked like 10 years ago. New buildings, some with a more modern façade, some retaining the traditional look of Acehnese houses, stand in sturdy rows along the road next to unfinished buildings or broken houses overrun by weeds. In most cases, it looked as though whoever built these homes changed their minds and abandoned their constructions for a different life elsewhere.

Speaking to some of the locals, I learned why. Most of those who decided to leave have lost their whole family to the tsunami. There was nowhere left to go, and so they packed whatever was left of their belongings and moved out of the region. It was heartbreaking. And yet even as you hear stories of loss, you also hear stories of survival. Stories of hope and recovery. Of finding loved ones alive even when every instinct that you have screamed the opposite. In them I saw resilience and a raw kind of strength – the sort that you gain after going through irreplaceable loss.

This fishing boat was carried over several kilometres inland by strong waves during the 2004 tsunami
This fishing boat was carried over several kilometres inland by strong waves during the 2004 tsunami

There was always a tense, poignant feeling in the air. I was sitting at a beach that was absolutely breathtaking – Azure waters, white sand, the very image of what beach getaways should be. But I wasn’t at peace there. I couldn’t be. The scenery on that fateful December morning would have been similar to this one, where everything changed within a matter of minutes.

One of the many breathtaking beaches in this region. This is now the location of the new harbour, built after the tsunami operations revealed a dire need for a port where supplies from military ships can be unloaded and delivered.
One of the many breathtaking beaches in this region. This is now the location of the new harbour, built after the tsunami operations revealed a dire need for a port where supplies from military ships can be unloaded and delivered.

Yet not everything was bleak, and beneath that air of tension there was also a great sense that the city, its people, the land, are on the road to full recovery. Indonesians are well known for their hospitality (I should know, I’m half Indonesian myself), and it was no different in Aceh. From the moment I arrived for my work mission, until the day I left, I was treated like a friend by everyone I met. Most would be eager to share their story, and it’s not difficult to sit at a coffee shop with them for hours, listening to them.

Three wise men in Calang province, one of the worst-affected areas.
Three wise men in Calang province, one of the worst-affected areas.

The citizens of the provinces surrounding Aceh are also taking a proactive role in trying to fortify their homes, preparing themselves for future disasters. With help from local Red Cross chapters, community projects like disaster drills and mangrove tree plantations are a common affair, seeing the keen involvement of villagers who are set on not letting history repeat itself. Talks of preserving future generations and making certain that they are equipped to face a disaster of such tremendous scale are often repeated, with emphasis on progress, preparation, and preservation.

These dead trees are testament to the force of the tsunami. The water travelled many kilometres inland, destroying everything in its path.
These dead trees are testament to the force of the tsunami. The water travelled many kilometres inland, destroying everything in its path.

Suffice to say, it was an eye-opening experience for me. It was the first time in my life where I had found myself in a place that was both beautiful and haunting, and that had people of such strength, courage and resilience.

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