A decade after tsunami, scars linger in Indonesia's Aceh

Much has been rebuilt, but hidden wounds may take far longer to heal
A decade after tsunami, scars linger in Indonesia's Aceh

Women read Qur'anic verses during a prayer service marking the tenth anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, in Banda Aceh on Sunday (Photo by Sebastian Strangio)

December 26, 2004 began much like any other Sunday. Dilla Damayanti was sitting in her parents’ living room having breakfast when the tremors hit: first an insistent shaking, then a pause, then a sudden violent seizure. The family quickly took refuge at a nearby mosque. “It was very quick,” she said. “Suddenly, water was coming, very fast.”

Dilla was just five years old when the Indian Ocean tsunami slammed into her small village near the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. She and her family survived the waves, but from her refuge on the mosque’s second floor she saw something she would never forget — her young school friend, a girl named Nadia, washed away in the deluge.

“She was shouting, help, help, but there was nothing we could do,” recalled Dilla, now a high school student. “That’s why I cannot forget. I thank God that I survived.”

Ten years ago this month, an earthquake 160 kilometers off the coast of Sumatra island triggered waves which killed an estimated 230,000 people, devastated coastal communities in 11 countries, and added a terrifying new term to local peoples’ vocabulary.

Among the worst-hit regions was Aceh, an Indonesian province on the northern tip of Sumatra. As massive waves — some as high as 30 meters — surged inland, around 130,000 people were killed and more than half a million displaced.

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One thing many residents of Aceh recall about the tsunami is the booming sound of the approaching water. Rahmadullah, 31, remembered “a sound like a cyclone.” Mohammad Saleh, a 54-year-old primary school principal, said the noise “was just like a bomb,” as the waters swept aside concrete buildings like so many cardboard boxes.

The capital city Banda Aceh was all but wiped off the map. In Ulee Lheue, the tsunami’s “ground zero,” just 10 percent of the area’s pre-disaster population of 6,000 survived. “When I arrived here all people were still collecting the dead bodies,” said Amrullah, an aid worker who arrived in Banda Aceh six days after the tsunami at the head of a disaster response team organized by the NGO Plan International.

A memorial to those killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Lhoong subdistrict, about 50 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh (Photo by Sebastian Strangio)

 

The international response to the disaster was overwhelming. In total, around US$7 billion was pledged to rebuild homes and restore infrastructure in tsunami-affected areas.

The tsunami also prompted a rethink of Indonesia’s disaster management procedures. In the aftermath of the calamity, the government centralized the procedures, placing them under the direct authority of the president. Laws were passed making it mandatory for new homes, buildings and schools to include disaster mitigation plans. In 2011, the UN recognized these efforts by designating then-Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a “Global Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction.”

The lesson was especially well learned in Banda Aceh. Everywhere around town, signs point out tsunami evacuation routes and in some places warning sirens have been installed. The Aceh Tsunami Museum — housed in a building shaped like the prow of a ship — not only commemorates the disaster, but also serves as an emergency shelter should a tsunami ever hit the city again.

Mohammed Saleh, the principal of Lamnga Primary School in Aceh Besar district, said that each year his teachers take part in disaster training conducted by the government and the Indonesian Red Cross. The school also holds annual disaster drills to teach students what to do in the event of another mega-quake.

“Now if there’s something, we know what to do,” he said.

Today, a decade after it was nearly claimed by the ocean, Banda Aceh hums with activity. Young people ride their motorbikes down streets rebuilt with international aid money. In the center of town, restaurants and coffee shops — even the odd shopping mall — are crowded and open late.

Bukhari Daud, 55, the former governor of Aceh Besar district, said that in the aftermath of the tsunami, “Banda Aceh was a different place.”

Today, “the reconstruction has not only been successful in replacing what was destroyed, but also putting [in] more development… if you had not seen Banda Aceh before, you would not know what has changed.” While the sudden influx of foreign aid money brought the usual share of corruption and local rent-seeking — “there were tidbits here and there,” Daud admitted — the overall reconstruction effort was a success.

In fact, the only outward signs that a tsunami took place at all are the boats left stranded in strange places by the waves — on the top of a building in Banda Aceh, on the beach outside town — and the dozens of memorials dotted along the coast, commemorating those lost in the disaster.

However, the hidden wounds may take longer to heal. Exact figures on mental health are hard to come by, but the World Health Organization estimates that up to 20 percent of a population may suffer stress-related disorders in the aftermath of a calamity like the Indian Ocean tsunami. Added to that is the impact of the civil war between the Indonesian military and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which killed 15,000 people over nearly three decades of see-sawing conflict.

While the devastation of the tsunami spurred efforts to end the conflict — the two sides went on to sign a peace agreement in August 2005 — the legacies of conflict have been harder to address than the region’s physical infrastructure.

Amrullah of Plan International said that at the time the tsunami hit, people affected by the war were already suffering from a variety of mental health problems. While the roadblocks and checkpoints of the civil war years are now gone, he added, “psychologically [they’re] not”.

The people of Aceh “got trauma from the military, then they were hit with the tsunami. We cannot measure the magnitude.”

But for all the problems still facing the region, ten years of reconstruction have dulled the grief, repaired shattered infrastructure and at least given people a fresh start.

Before the tsunami, life in Lamboro Nijid, a village on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, was tough. Due to the war, movement was restricted. Curfews were common. Local people were frequently taken in for questioning about their supposed links to GAM rebels, and sometimes tortured for information.

“When there was conflict the worst affected were the ordinary people,” said Rahmadullah, a resident of the village. Then, one day came the roaring waters to wash it all away.

“After, we could speak freely,” he said of December 26, 2004. “What happened that day? We got freedom.”

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