Ten years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami wiped out huge tracts of Aceh in Indonesia and killed thousands in Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Thailand, as well Somalia and the coastal areas in Kenya, I’m back in Thailand and still working in emergency. It’s hard to believe that I began this path with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, arriving in Banda Aceh just a few days after the tsunami wiped out more than 240,000 lives, destroyed homes and infrastructure – schools, shops, mosques, hotels, hospitals, road, sewage, water and electricity systems. I remember arriving to Jakarta with less than six months to run on my passport. In many countries in Asia, they simply don’t admit travellers but they were making exceptions for those who arrived to assist.
I had a few days in Jakarta buying tents and equipment to transport to Aceh where my Goal colleague Sheilagh Henry was busy trying to set up office and find us accommodation. I managed to get a flight up first to Medan before securing a seat on a flight to Banda Aceh where a driver, recognisable by his Goal baseball hat, picked me up. Mobile phones weren’t working properly and coverage was intermittent, so with a little luck and a lot of persistence I was able to contact Sheilagh eventually.
The earthquake that caused the tsunami measured 9 on the Reciter scale – it was massive. I can’t begin to describe what a terrible scene greeted me – it was an Armageddon. It seemed as if an angry god had thrown his toys out of a pram; boats, cars, houses all thrown together. Mobile and communication masts were mangled and broken and the amount of sticky, dirty mud was incredible. Everything was covered in it – everything was dirty. You could see the water/mud marks on the houses that remained standing, like a high-tide mark.
There was a ship that ended up in a housing estate with the steering wheel of a car sticking out from it – I couldn’t help imagining that there were many bodies buried beneath. The top floor of a hotel lay on top of a pile of rubble that was once three or maybe four other floors – who knows. But many, many bodies buried beneath and I doubt ever located.
Such was the chaos in the days after the tsunami it took me more than a week to realise we were supposed to be driving on the left hand side of the road – the same as Ireland. I think people who had survived this tsunami just disregarded rules – in the grander scheme of things, it really didn’t seem to matter.
We had two local women working for us with the Irish NGO, Goal. Kurnia was a young woman with excellent English. She accompanied me as we travelled around in the car. The volunteers in the Red Crescent Society, the real heroes, were out on the streets bagging bodies and leaving them on the side of the road to be collected, like garbage. It was the only way it could be done. It was a mammoth task and Kurnia, who had lost members of her family just didn’t want to see bodies up close and personal. You didn’t need glasses to see just how distended and distorted bodies were.
The bodies took weeks to collect many of them never to be found. All numbers were just estimated as whole families died, I’m guessing with nobody left to report the deaths. The authorities opened a mass grave outside the town and didn’t bury the bodies deeply enough so coming in and out from assessing the areas outside Aceh, the smell of rotting corpses that would greet you when the helicopter landed, was stomach churning.
I think one of the most poignant things for me was standing on a street one day, looking down and there was a family photo album flapping, pages turning randomly. It felt like sneaking a look into some family’s life and being privy to very personal moments. The smiling happy faces stared back at me, making me realise that there were very real, ordinary people, just like me, who had probably not survived.
The other woman who worked with us had qualified as a doctor and was in Jakarta visiting relatives when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Her home wasn’t the only thing she lost; Fita had two children, a boy and a girl aged about eight and ten. Both children were lost in the tsunami. She was desperate to find them and went off looking at even a hint of unaccompanied children showing up. She kept saying her children were not dead; she had no bodies, but that they were missing. Fita, like so many others was in denial. She would have been in her late 30’s by that time and within weeks her husband had her attending a fertility clinic to see could they have more children. I’m not sure Fita was ready for that – she just wanted her missing children, who like so many more, never turned up again.
Fita also shared with us the stories that were in circulation among the community, that Christian soldiers had been seen drinking alcohol while sitting on the graves the previous evening and that’s what caused the tsunami. We had trouble trying to convince Fita that they were indeed, just false rumours.
I managed a small office in Calang and travelling on the helicopter up along the coast you could see just the tiles of where the houses once stood. The trees were gone, the grass was burnt and it was best described as desolation. Every now and again you could see small camps where tents were erected for villages to protect them from the elements.
From Banda Aceh to the town of Calang, a distance of some 130 kilometres, there wasn’t a house left standing. Nothing stood, except the odd mosque – the source of another rumour, that god protected the mosques, that’s why they remained standing. Nothing to do with the fact that there was much better building materials used and because there were so many windows, it allowed the water to travel through.
The tsunami came in for about 1.5 kilometres and at the speed of a jumbo jet. When people saw the water going out, they ran out to fetch the fish that were left behind. I met a man from the mayor’s office in Calang one day at the heliport who told me he knew what was happening when he saw the tide go out; gathered his family and they ran to the hills where they watched the town die.
Calang is a peninsula, so the water came in from all sides. If 20 per cent of the population survived, it was all that survived the wall of water. Just one house remained and was used by the army and for our coordination meetings. We lived in tents by the water and worked and slept there. We travelled around by motorcycle (until a safety officer arrived from Goal headquarters and put a stop to all that). The roads were unusable by car and the road from Aceh to Calang was only accessible by helicopter.
Calang was a dangerous place to be and more especially so if you were national staff. I had a young water engineer from Jakarta, Satya, working with us – it was his first job and he would travel to the villages and assist them to de-salinate the wells, essential for the community.
At the time the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement wanted autonomy from national government in Jakarta. The western coast of Aceh is rich in oil and it was believed that most of the oil money went to the capital while Aceh remained a poor relation. Like other freedom movements, when they begin, they are full of ideals. This group, like others, descended into violence, causing fear among communities and more so for those who were not from Aceh.
The tsunami cut off the GAM volunteers from their food access, so they were more likely to come closer into the towns and villages to try and get food. Foreigners and people from Jakarta were easy targets and Satya was stopped on more than one occasion questioned where he was going and what he was doing. He and I both were terrified something would happen. He left the camp one morning and when he hadn’t returned at the agreed time I began to really worry about his safety. I eventually went to report it to the local army captain who radioed ahead to the outposts to keep an eye out for the team and report back on any untoward incidents.
Long after sunset when I had no nails left on my fingers and many imagined conversations with his parents explaining how he had died and how I was responsible, Satya showed up to the camp. I didn’t know whether to kiss him or admonish him, but I was never so relieved in my life to see anybody. The bike had a puncture and the radios weren’t charged…. If it could go wrong, it did.
Three months after the tsunami, the Goal operation closed down in Aceh. It was a pity, we were doing some real and meaningful work there.
I returned to Ireland and joined the other Irish NGO, Trocaire covering the tsunami region and began another great adventure based in Jakarta, but travelled to Sri Lanka, India and Thailand to report on the work or their partners.
Today, 10 years later, the Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos will speak at a commemoration ceremony in Phuket. There is still a disconnect with the Aceh authorities and the government in Jakarta, so much so, there is no national commemoration.
I would like to think that if another tsunami came racing for the shore, that people would be smart enough to get out of its way, but we won’t know that until it happens again. In the meantime, I continue to work in emergency reporting on disasters throughout Asia Pacific.
My wish for the New Year would be to be made redundant – no more disasters, no more wars, no more human suffering. I hope 2015 brings you peace wherever you are reading this.
Aginas 16 cradles his sleeping 2 month old niece Safa
Young patients at the Blang Padang clinic in Banda Aceh
Boat and orphanage
Until next time