On December 26, 2004, an earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, with a magnitude of 9.1 on the Richter scale, generated 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 almost erased from the map.
Nobody wants to remember that fateful day — the day that showed the world that in a battle between man and nature, nature always wins.
Ground zero revisited
Last year, in its effort to strengthen disaster education in neighboring ASEAN countries, the Asia Center of the Japan Foundation initiated the Hope and Dreams Program (HANDs!).The program’s ultimate goal is to create and innovate disaster education preparedness plan that can be used in different communities across the entire ASEAN region.
This year’s HANDs! Program kicked off by visiting the ground zero of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
‘When I arrived here all people were still collecting the dead bodies,” said Ibnu Mundir, a HANDs!2015 Fellow and a volunteer for American Red Cross who got to Banda Aceh a week after the tsunami.
“Giving aid to the survivors was a challenging and daunting task, people didn’t know where to go, and people didn’t really care about it. Everybody was just confused,” he said. Mundir is an eyewitness to Aceh’s struggle and suffering after the tsunami.
Lampuuk beach was breathtaking and calm that day, but Mundir can still recall the stories of survivors about the wall of seawater making an ear-piercing sound as it swept trees, homes, buildings, lives and dreams.
HANDs! Fellows were also able to visit important tsunami-related sites in Aceh. One of them is the PLTD Apung 1, a 2600 ton vessel that was swept away by tsunami’s brute force.
The fellows also had the chance to revisit the mosques that withstood the powerful tsunami.
Acehnese people believe that those mosques are a testament of their unwavering faith amidst the disaster.
Building back better
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami triggered the biggest humanitarian work at that time. International aid poured in to support reconstruction, rehabilitation and deal with an unfolding humanitarian emergency. In total, around $7 billion in aid was eventually pledged to rebuild homes and restore lives.
The scale of the devastation also paved 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 (FAM) 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.
The tsunami also prompted the Indonesian government to review and pass laws about disaster education, preparedness and mitigation.
Roaming around Banda Aceh now, it is very visible that a decade after the tsunami was enough to rebuild their lives anew. However, stories of pain, grief and loss may take a longer time to heal for the Acehnese people.
Learning from the 2004 Banda Aceh tsunami was one of the most painful ways to learn.
Mundir told the HANDs fellows that the word “tsunami” never existed in Banda Aceh before. After the catastrophe, the Indonesian government initiated the creation of Tsunami museum, a Tsunami Disaster Mitigation and Research Center, and the preservation of Tsunami-related sites in Aceh.
At first, it was a debate between the government and the Acehenese people whether a Disaster tourism approach was a good idea, but at the end of the day, more than reminding the painful scenario of the 2006 tsunami, disaster tourism also strengthens the story of resiliency of the Acehnese people.
Experiencing Banda Aceh
After days of intense immersion with Banda Aceh’s rich culture, history, and community, HANDs fellows were also given the chance to do workshop and training in Tikar Pandan community. A theater group who created the TV Eng-Ong method. To cap the Indonesia-leg of the Hands program, fellows were told to perform their own TV eng-ong performances in from of the Acehenese community.
The TV eng-ong performances by the HANDs fellows were well received by the audience and later on explained that it can be one of the approaches on how the Hands! delegates can make their disaster action plan, interactive, creative and engaging.
I was not yet a journalist when the 2004 Banda Aceh tsunami happened. Revisiting Banda Aceh now, and getting first hand stories from survivors gave me a sense of fulfillment as a journalist. I was very happy to know that Banda Aceh is on its way to full recovery. I am thrillled with the idea that the Acehnese people are on their feet again, rebuilding their lives, rebuilding their dreams once again.
Looking around, I think that coming to terms with the Banda Aceh tsunami was the hardest thing to deal with for the Acehnese people.
Oftentimes, when we talk about disasters, an unimaginable destruction comes to the picture claiming thousands of lives. But natural disasters in the course of time and experience are something that we can always be prepared of.
In our everyday lives, we have been shaken by our own personal struggles. And the question always remain the same, what are we going to do about it?
After disaster, we become stronger, more resilient and unified.
And that’s how we move forward, with heroes among us.
Indeed, It is hard to live without money, it is hard to live without food, but it is harder to live without HOPE.
Written by TRISTAN NODALO (HANDs! 2015 Fellow from Philippines)
For more information about HANDs! Project, visit its official website “HANDs! Project for Disaster Education” and its official Facebook page!