Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tsunami Sightseeing in Banda Aceh

I never imagined that I would ever go to Banda Aceh, Indonesia. As I sat in the kitchen of my parents' house in NJ on December 26, 2004 watching the news of the devastating tsunami in Asia unfold, that area of the world seemed about as far away from my current reality as one could possibly get. Finding myself living in Indonesia six years later, a natural curiosity led me to do a little bit of tsunami sightseeing while I was in Banda Aceh for my workshop last month with Megan.

NGO money actually led to the construction of a tsunami museum in Banda Aceh, but it still wasn't open when we visited. Fortunately, Megan and I had two lovely hosts, Khairil and Jal, who were willing to drive us around town to the different sites. Our first stop, even before checking into our hotel, was to see the power generator vessel, a 2500 ton ship that was carried inland about 4km by the tsunami. For a small donation, we were able to climb up on the ship, explore the decks and admire the view of the newly rebuilt town below.

Power generator vessel
Later on I heard from a colleague in Yogya that the ship actually came to rest on several houses, tragically killing the families inside. Several years later when one of the surviving children got married, the wedding reception was held on the deck of the ship.

Power generator vessel as seen from Taman Edukasi Tsunami Park
Located in the Taman Edukasi Tsunami Park is a powerful display of photographs documenting the aftermath of the tsunami in Banda Aceh. Despite all the coverage I watched six years ago, the full extent of the tragedy first hit me as I studied photos of the destruction. Megan and I talked about how we had somehow been under the impression that most victims of the tsunami were just washed out to sea. No doubt we got this idea from American TV, which does not generally show dead bodies. But here, photo after photo showed the corpses as they were found: blackened, bloated, half flesh and half bone. I have never seen anything like it. One particular image of a body stuck to fence as if caught in a drain particularly moved me. The tsunami claimed more than 230,000 lives in 14 countries. These figures are just statistics until you look at the pictures and the reality of the disaster sets in.

Taman Edukasi Tsunami also has a playground, planted flowers and lots of families wandering around with their kids. As if to show life goes on, this young girl happily posed for me by the Taman Edukasi Tsunami sign:

A few days later we went to see another remnant of the tsunami - the famous fishing boat on a house. While I walked around the boat taking pictures, a man came out of the house next door and struck up a conversation with me in surprisingly good English. He told me the story of how 54 people took refuge in the boat for 7 hours until the waters receded. The man turned out to be a member of a well-known singing group in Indonesia and showed me pictures of both the destruction in the neighborhood and members of his group in better days. Although he had escaped the tsunami unharmed, several members of his band had perished. He also told me he once performed with Cat Stevens. This performance may have been at a benefit concert in Jakarta the month after the tsunami where Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) performed with many local musicians to raise money for Aceh province.

Boat on a house

From another angle

Neighbor (and family) who told me about the boat and Cat Stevens
In the center of town there is also a large park with a display called "Aceh Thanks the World." The paths of the park are lined with monuments in the shape of the bow of a ship with messages of thanks and peace to all the countries of the world who donated disaster relief funds to help Aceh rebuild. 

Aceh thanks the United States
Tsunamis are not uncommon in this part of the world. Sadly, just two weeks before my visit to Banda Aceh another tsunami struck the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra, killing hundreds. Although I have no current plans to go there, you never know.


  1. I remember visiting and presenting in Aceh. After our workshops one morning, the director of the English department took us to the tsunami museum and also the site of the ship that covered 3 houses. We visited a memorial full of photos of the damage directly after the tsunami struck. Aceh is such a beautiful area and the juxtaposition of tragedy made the afternoon really difficult. I can just imagine what your sightseeing was like.

    Then the director (Bapak Sofyan) told us about his experience...he was studying in Jakarta when he heard the news...his wife and daughters were in Aceh and he was unable to reach them. He couldn't fly home so he fly to Medan then took a 12-hour bus ride to Aceh. They stopped at a warung for dinner and they heard that Aceh was completely gone-everyone on the bus was panicked, crying. They kept trying to reach their families, but couldn't. He kept sms-ing his wife, over and over. Finally, finally, he received a message back that she and her younger daughter were safe in a shelter. I was sitting in the back of the car when he was telling this story, but I could see his face in the rear view mirror and his eyes were really bright with tears. When they arrived in Aceh, the bus dropped them off where the road ended and passengers literally walked through debris and damage and bodies and people begging for food and water. He found the shelter with his wife and daughter, and they soon discovered that their older daughter was also safe-her class has been exercising and the teacher had taken them up on a hill.

    For almost 3 more days they were without food and only a little bit of water. They lost their entire house, his brother and his sister and they lived with his mother in law for two years. They have built a new house now. It was such an intensely personal, moving story. God...he believes...really exists.

    It was one of my most moving experiences while living in Indonesia. I am so glad you also visited Aceh and understand what life must be like for the people there.

  2. Thanks for sharing Pak Sofyan's story, Ash! It's absolutely heartbreaking to think of the thousands upon thousands of similar stories there must be connected to the tsunami. At the same time, the progress made in rebuilding the region and the friendliness of the Acehnese are proof of their inspiring resiliency.

    And I think your comment about the juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy is a very apt one. Banda Aceh is beautiful! In many ways it reminded me of Gorontalo and I think this will be the subject of my next post. Like you, I'm also very glad that I got the opportunity to visit the area; I would consider it 'a must' for every ELF!