Memories of Aceh

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 25 December 2009

Memories of Aceh

Read the story in TIME magazine

Indonesia Five Years After the Tsunami
By Andrew Marshall

“The destination you have dialed does not exist.”

It is Jan. 9, 2005. I have spent two weeks in Thailand reporting on a tsunami that has transformed its famous beach resorts into corpse-strewn ruins. One night, exhausted, my clothes reeking of death, I try calling a colleague in the hard-hit Indonesian province of Aceh. I simply misdial, but the recorded message gives me chills: “The destination you have dialed…”

Aceh did exist, of course, but with 166,000 dead or missing it had borne the brunt of the Indian Ocean tsunami, triggered by a 9.15-magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian coast on Dec. 26, 2004. It was a truly international catastrophe: the tsunami struck 13 countries, killing 226,000 people of 40 nationalities. Five years later, a first-time visitor to the worst-affected countries — Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand — might find the wave’s terrible path hard to detect, thanks to a multinational, multi-billion-dollar reconstruction effort. Across Aceh, thousands of houses were built with foreign aid in what were once wastelands. In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, new homes surround a 2,600-ton ship pushed a mile inland by the Tsunami. It is now a tourist attraction.

When I traveled to Aceh in 2005, three weeks after the wave struck, some 3,000 bodies were still being pulled from the rubble every day. Most aid-workers and journalists saw more dead in their first few days than in a lifetime of conflicts and emergencies, yet it was the living who haunted us. I will never forget a gaunt, dignified Acehnese woman called Lisdiana, who was combing the debris for any trace of her four-year-old nephew Azeel. She had dreamed he was still alive. “He’s a very handsome boy,” she told me, “with skin as white as yours.” Did she find Azeel? Probably not. The missing stayed missing, the dead stayed dead.

A return to Aceh today is a heartening experience. Billions of dollars in reconstruction funds have poured into the province, and it shows. Banda Aceh, where the tsunami killed 60,000 people — a fifth of the population — is now bustling and prosperous. There is a new hospital and airport, and tourist shops selling I-love-Aceh T-shirts.

There is also peace. The tsunami helped extinguish a decades-old conflict between Indonesian government troops and separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM by its initials in Bahasa Indonesian), who laid down their weapons in 2005. Despite sporadic political violence, Aceh’s war is over. One enterprising local travel agent even offers “guerrilla tours” to GAM’s former jungle strongholds.

That’s not to say Acenese have truly healed, or that they ever will. Syamsiah, 47, runs a food stall in Calang, a tsunami-annihilated town about 90 miles from Banda Aceh that was rebuilt by the Red Cross. She seemed unfazed by the prospect of another tsunami (“That’s God’s business. Why should I be afraid?”) but is tormented by the loss of many of her relatives, including her parents, when the wave swept over their coastal village. Syamsiah had found only their bones. “It broke my heart,” she sobbed.

While most Tsunami-hit areas have been rebuilt, “there’s still more work to be done,” says Patrick Fuller of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Top of the list: preparing for the next disaster. A regional tsunami early-warning system has been up and running since 2006. But getting timely and accurate information to imperiled communities is problematic. Time is of the essence: Aceh, for example, sits on the northern tip of the seismologically hyperactive island of Sumatra, where an earthquake in the western city of Padang killed more than 1,000 people in September.

This month, thousands of bereaved worldwide will observe the tsunami’s fifth anniversary as solemnly as its first or its 50th. The rest of us can take some solace in the fact that while the tragedy of the tsunami touched every continent, so too did the relief effort that followed. More than 100 countries took part in the tsunami response. Some $13.5 billion was pledged in aid, with an unprecedented $5.5 billion donated by the general public. Not since the Live Aid famine-relief concerts of 1985 had the world’s compassion been so galvanized. At one point, Britons were donating nearly $14,000 a minute to the main tsunami relief fund. The wave slammed into Asian and east African shores, but the whole world seemed to absorb some of its impact, some of its grief. Today we can reflect upon what our overwhelming response five years ago means as we face other global emergencies: that out of nature’s darkest hour can come one of humanity’s finest.

See “Aceh: Five Years After The Tsunami,” a photo essay by Agnes Dherbeys

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