BANDA ACEH – One thing people invariably recall about the Indian Ocean tsunami is the terrifying sound the tidal wave made as it surged towards shore. Rahmadullah, 31, remembered “a sound like a cyclone.” Mohammad Saleh, a 54-year-old primary school principal, said the wave made a noise “just like a bomb” as it swept trees, homes, and buildings aside like so many cardboard boxes. “It was high as the coconut trees,” recalled carpenter Teuku Mirwan, 31, describing the wall of seawater. “It was black.”
On December 26, 2004, a strange and terrifying new word entered the vocabulary in the Indonesian province of Aceh. An earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, triggered massive tidal waves – some as high as 30 meters – which killed an estimated 230,000 people and devastated coastal communities in 11 countries. Aceh, surrounded by ocean at the northern tip of Sumatra, was among the areas worst-hit by the tsunami. The disaster claimed the lives of 130,000 people and displaced half a million more. Whole families were washed away in the deluge. The coastal geography of the province was violently redrawn. The provincial capital Banda Aceh was all but erased from the map.
At Ulee Lheue, the tsunami’s “ground zero,” just one building remained standing: the century-old Baiturrahim Mosque; photos show a battered structure surrounded by a field of devastation. The chief imam Mohammad Iqbal, who lost his brother and grandmother in the tragedy, put the mosque’s survival down to the grace of God. “Everything was destroyed. Only the mosque was still standing. It was like the end of days,” he said. A stone’s throw away, the once-fatal ocean shimmered innocently in the late-afternoon sun. In Ulee Lheue, 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 with the NGO Plan International, who got to Banda Aceh six days after the tsunami to assess the situation and begin aiding the survivors. “When we wanted to discuss the [emergency aid] distribution, [people] didn’t care about it. Everybody was just confused,” he said. The scale of the devastation was such that it even opened the way towards a resolution of the region’s long-running civil war, which had raged for nearly three decades. Soon after the tsunami hit, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian military declared a ceasefire to help aid get through to survivors. Eight months later, in August 2005, the two sides finally signed a peace agreement, bringing to a close a conflict that had cost some 15,000 lives.
At the same time international aid poured in to support reconstruction and deal with an unfolding humanitarian emergency. In total, around $7 billion in aid was eventually pledged to rebuild homes and restore infrastructure in tsunami-affected areas. The tsunami also prompted the government in Jakarta to rethink its disaster management mechanisms: disaster response procedures were centralized and placed under the direct authority of the president; in 2007 the government passed a law making it mandatory to integrate disaster risk reduction measures when building new offices, schools, factories, and homes. Four years later the UN recognized these efforts by recognizing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a “Global Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction.”
The lessons have been especially well learnt in Banda Aceh. Around town orange signs indicate new tsunami evacuation routes, and in some places along the coast warning sirens have been installed. Mohammed Saleh, the principal of the 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, destroyed in the tsunami and rebuilt in 2006 with funds from Plan International, also holds annual disaster drills to teach students now to react in the event of another mega-quake. “Now if there’s something, we know what to do,” Saleh said.
Other than this, there is surprisingly little in Banda Aceh to indicate the worst natural disaster in Southeast Asia’s living memory. In the center of town, young people drive motorbikes down streets lined with advertising billboards. Restaurants, coffee shops, and shopping malls are crowded and open late into the evening. “The reconstruction has not only been successful in replacing what was destroyed, but also putting [in] more development,” said Bukhari Daud, 55, the governor of Aceh Besar district from 2007-12, who helped coordinate the reconstruction efforts. While he admitted that the sudden influx of foreign aid money brought its usual share of problems, including low-level corruption and rent-seeking, Daud hailed the overall reconstruction effort as a success, adding that the improved infrastructure has opened up new economic opportunities for many people. “If you had not seen Banda Aceh before, you would not know what has changed,” he said.
In fact, the only outward signs of the disaster are the boats washed up in strange places by the tidal waves: one still sits atop of a building in Banda Aceh – one of many small monuments to the tragedy – and another rusts on the beach a short drive outside town. In the capital, the Aceh Tsunami Museum, opened in 2009 in a purpose-built building based on the swooping shape of a tidal wave, serves not only as a symbolic reminder of the disaster, but also as an emergency shelter in the event the waters ever return to Banda Aceh.
But while a decade has been enough to rebuild the region’s infrastructure, the mental scars may take much longer to heal. Few citizens in Aceh remained untouched by the disaster. Many saw loved ones, possessions, and communities wiped out to sea – an unimaginable emotional and psychological burden. Dilla Damayanti was just five years old when she saw a schoolmate taken by the waves. Today, when she feels small tremors – a frequent occurrence – the 15-year-old said she can feel the old panic rising. “When there is an earthquake, the trauma is still there,” she said.
Statistics on mental health are hard to come by, but the World Health Organization estimates that up to 20 percent of any given population may suffer stress-related disorders in the aftermath of a large-scale calamity like the Indian Ocean tsunami, a burden compounded in Aceh’s case by years of civil war and conflict. The people of Aceh “got trauma from the military, then they were hit with the tsunami,” said Amrullah of Plan International. “We cannot measure the magnitude.”
But despite the weight of the past, some people say it is enough that ten years of reconstruction has given them a fresh start. “We had to stand up again,” said Teuku Mirwan, who lost his parents and brother to the tsunami. “We couldn’t just sit. If we sat down we’d be in trauma all the time.” Rahmadullah, a farmer from Lamboro Nijid village on the outskirts of the capital, said that before the tsunami, life was a daily struggle. Because of the civil war, the village was shut off to the outside world. Movement was restricted and curfews were common. Local people were frequently taken away by the Indonesian military for questioning about their supposed links to the GAM rebels, and sometimes tortured in the process. “When there was conflict the worst affected were the ordinary people,” Rahmadullah said. Then, one day in December, came the roaring waters to wash it all away. Despite the colossal devastation, he said, “we could speak freely. What happened that day? We got freedom.”
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh and the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. His work has appeared in The Economist, Asia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected].