Aceh’s tsunami scars

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On my last day in Banda Aceh before heading out to Pulau Weh, I wasn’t sure what to look at next. Banda Aceh is an odd place, because it was destroyed by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Much of the city is relatively brand new, so while in some ways it is just like any other Indonesian city, in many other ways it really isn’t like most of them at all. It’s quieter and cleaner and smaller to wander around, with better public facilities than most cities, however the main monuments in the town are all linked to the horror of the tsunami and each new piece of infrastructure carries with it a reminder of the disaster that battered this province.

Some of the becak drivers outside my hotel had every morning been yelling out at me “tsunami tour misses” when I would leave to go wandering for the day, and the crassness of it was off-putting. But realistically, I was interested in seeing the tsunami sights. After a walk, I met a quiet becak driver waiting outside the market (top picture). I asked him if he could take me to the “boat on the house” and he agreed fairly enthusiastically.

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This is the boat on the house. Obviously. Pushed 3km inland by the huge wave, this boat became lodged on top of the two storey house and acted as a refuge for 59 people who might otherwise not have survived the tsunami waves. It’s not the only boat washed significantly inland by the wave.

Freshly repainted for the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, complete with a viewing platform, a donation box stands out front, near a wall with a clock from the house which stopped exactly at the time the tsunami hit the house… 8.45am.

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I climbed up to the viewing platform and took a look, and my becak driver followed. He was acting kind of odd and I wasn’t sure what was up. We stood in awkward silence for a little while, then I said “from seeing this, I can really understand how big the tsunami was.”

“Yes. It was very big,” my becak driver replied. “It came three times. Three big, big waves. It knocked down my house.”

“Oh, that is very sad.”

“My house is rebuilt now. But my child is still missing.”

I could see tears welling up in his eyes and I just felt so awful and totally lost for words, especially Indonesian words.

“I hope a disaster like this never happens again,” was the best I could come up with. He nodded and we both quietly looked out at the Banda Aceh skyline, punctuated with the prefabricated A-line roofs distinctive of the post-tsunami houses built by relief agencies.

I felt so guilty for making this poor man come out to the boat when clearly he was still grieving and didn’t have any closure on the loss of his child. I felt like maybe I should have picked one of those guys boldly touting tsunami tours outside the hotel instead.  Maybe their grieving process had already come full circle, or maybe they were just more used to seeing these monuments to disaster. After we had walked back down from the viewing platform, I changed the topic and started asking about the local specialty coffee and we headed off to a coffee store.

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The next day when I took a becak out to the ferry port at Ulee Lhee, the area of Banda Aceh hardest hit by the tsunami, the black and white photocopy tourist map the hotel gave me identified tsunami sites along the road, for example, a mass grave housing nearly 50,000 bodies and the tsunami ‘ground zero’, where the wave first rushed ashore.

Even more than five years on, unmapped remnants of pre-tsunami Banda punctuated the drive.  A staircase leading to nowhere, the house obviously destroyed by the wave.  Support pillars, foundations or columns from houses that no longer were.  All nestled in between new neighbourhoods of identical houses built rapidly out of necessity.

But I didn’t really feel like stopping like a tourist this time.  While the Acehnese were beautifully welcoming and many were happy to talk frankly about the tsunami, I think, for some, it is still just too soon.  And while usually I clamor to take as many photos as possible of everything, going into semi-‘reporter’ mode, I just didn’t feel like it that morning. I just absorbed it.

Aceh really left an impression on me.  It’s an extremely interesting place.  I’d really encourage people to visit, but to visit thoughtfully.

You can also read a piece about Aceh’s tsunami museum that I wrote for the Jakarta Globe over here.

4 Responses to " Aceh’s tsunami scars "

  1. green_teacup says:

    Ashlee, I just found your blog yesterday (accidentally) and already love it <– me gesturing big red heart love with my hands.
    .-= green_teacup´s last blog .. =-.

  2. Sophie says:

    Hey Ash, great post. That must’ve been quite a difficult moment. Aceh looks beautiful.

    Soph

  3. Ashlee, this is a wonderful story. Would it be okay if I used a version of it in a novel I am currently writing? It will be a little side light to add backstory to the character of a guide.
    By the way, I think you may actually have helped the man in his grieving process, such a gentle sharing of his sorrow can be healing.

  4. Zulhidayat AY says:

    Many thanks for your visit to Aceh and the article. I’m glad if any tourists are impressed with Aceh and all the story. I hope you’ll be back here 😀