Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

Oct 25th
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Aceh Five Years Later

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Article Index
Aceh Five Years Later
Great Love Village I, Panteriek
Great Love Village II, Neuheun
Great Love Village III, Meulaboh
The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 in a Nutshell
All Pages
On December 26, 2004, a horrific tsunami brought death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of people. The unspeakable devastation rerouted the lives of countless people in Aceh, Indonesia. Children were orphaned, newlyweds widowed, whole families wiped out—all in a heartbeat.

Despite the tragedy, the road to recovery has been made a little less arduous for 2,568 families in the region. In the wake of the disaster, Tzu Chi built permanent housing for them and offered a glimmer of hope for a new life. In the places they now call homes, they remember loved ones and seek anew the promises of tomorrow.

The rainy season was coming to an end in Aceh. On the eve of Eid al-Adha—or the Festival of Sacrifice, in the 12th and last month of the Islamic lunar calendar—pedicabs, scooters, and automobiles packed the streets of the shopping districts of Banda Aceh, the capital of the predominantly Muslim Aceh special region.

Older buildings stood next to new ones amidst the crowds along the teeming streets. Some of the older structures had survived the deadly waves, but newer ones had risen from the destruction after the tsunami. In the midst of this hodgepodge of old and new, sorrow and hope, the people of Aceh have shown tremendous vitality in recovering from the calamity. They have experienced great destruction, but now they are striving for a great recovery.

The events of that tragic day in December 2004 will be forever etched in the hearts and minds of everyone left alive in Aceh. Every resident can recall with perfect clarity the horrors of that day. In fact, telling the stories of those horrifying moments seems to be a necessary therapeutic step in the recovery of those traumatized. The stories are heartrending. Survivors tell of how water engulfed and washed away homes and businesses. They tell of how again and again one national death toll was topped by another before eventually hitting 230,000. They relate lists of survivors who lost one or more family members. Most tragically, they tell of the lives of their own loved ones who perished that day. But despite all the sorrow and misery, they know life must go on.

In addition to those that perished, the tsunami left nearly half a million people homeless. After the devastation, aid and love poured into the country from around the world. Twenty-seven United Nations agencies, 40 countries, and over 600 charitable organizations helped rebuild Aceh, at a cost of US$6.4 billion.

As part of this international aid effort, Tzu Chi built permanent housing for 2,568 families in three communities: Great Love Villages I, II, and III, located in Panteriek, Neuheun, and Meulaboh respectively. In addition to the residential units, Tzu Chi also built nine schools (kindergarten through grade 9) and other public facilities in the three villages.

Aida Angkasa (洪元璦) lives in Medan, the capital of Sumatra Province, which neighbors Aceh. A Tzu Chi volunteer, she has been shuttling between her home and Aceh, where she spends one to two weeks a month in one of the three villages. She handles applications for residency and helps residents settle into their new homes. She knows almost every family in the three villages.

"When the houses were being built, we gave priority to families with children,” Angkasa said. “Initially, some people were not sure if they wanted to move in at all, but once they saw how nice the villages were turning out, they all wanted in.” In addition to having typical rooms and facilities, each housing unit is rustproof and insulated against sound and heat. They even have front and back yards.

Residents have already started to build additions to their homes. “It shows that their finances are improving,” Angkasa explained.

Great Love Village I, Panteriek
A row of temporary stalls mark the location of where the old marketplace in Banda Aceh used to be before the tsunami. The stall on the far right is called Tennis Meatballs. It is standing in for the original stall, which was wiped out in the tsunami. Jaminur, 43, has been running Tennis Meatballs for 17 years.

The day of the tsunami started like countless others for Jaminur. He rose at six o’clock, completed his morning prayers, and made meatballs with his wife, Paridah. Then he left home and took the meatballs to the stall. He went alone that day. His son, Jefri, would usually have gone with him, but he stayed home that morning because of a headache. Little did Jaminur know that he would never see his son or daughter again.

"I crossed the street to buy breakfast soon after I opened up the stall,” Jaminur recalled. “That’s when the earthquake hit.” He was shaken out of his wits. Just as he was wondering whether he should stay put or run home to check on his family, the earth shook again. People shouted that huge waves were rushing in. He scampered with about 50 other vendors to the top floor of the building, just in time to see the streets below disappear under water and debris. He also saw bodies floating by.

Dead bodies and debris clogged up the thoroughfares in Banda Aceh, making passage impossible. Jaminur couldn’t go home. He wandered about in a daze and eventually found his way to a local mosque where he found his grief-stricken wife. She had been running with their two children for safety when waves washed the children away.

The couple’s world was completely turned upside down that day. They had lost their house, their belongings, and most tragically, their children. They did not know how to carry on. The chaos and uncertainty of their lives began to ease only after they moved into the tent city in Jantho. There they waited to relocate to Great Love Village I, under construction in nearby Panteriek.

Jaminur and his wife took up residence in the village in 2006. They also borrowed seven million rupiahs (US$740) to reopen their stall. But business was not what it had been before the disaster. Before the tsunami, the couple easily sold 200 bowls of beef meatballs a day. Now they were lucky to sell just 50 bowls a day. A typical day’s earnings amounted to a paltry 100,000 rupiahs (less than US$11).

Jaminur works hard and thinks fast. It wasn’t long before he hit upon another source of income: He bought used cars, revamped them, and sold them. Soon they were able to buy furniture for their new home. Jaminur and his wife are among the most capable money-makers in the village.

But no amount of money can fill the void left by their lost children. “Even if I work day and night, I can hardly feel less pain,” Jaminur said. Jefri, their son, was nine years old; their daughter, Lia, was only five. They sent photos of the children to TV stations and different organizations in Banda Aceh and Medan, hoping to locate them. But there was no news of them.

It took the couple a very long time to come to terms with the fact that little Jefri and Lia were not coming back. “We’ll never know where the waves carried them,” he said. They hung black-and-white portraits of the children on the wall of their new home, and they dug out the few old photo albums they had to remember them by.

Thankfully, Jaminur’s wife gave birth to a daughter, Laisa Auliah, in 2007. This was fully two years behind the initial baby boom that followed in the wake of the tsunami.

"We’re grateful to Tzu Chi for giving us a place where we can settle down and start over,” Jaminur said as he prepared his meatballs one morning. He plans to open another stall right in the Great Love Village so that his wife can more easily work and care for their daughter.

It appears that the couple has finally freed themselves from the devastation of the tsunami and started their lives anew.

Great Love Village II, Neuheun
We followed Angkasa to Great Love Village II, located in Neuheun, 14 kilometers (nine miles) east of Banda Aceh, in Mesjid Raya County. The village is tucked in the hills, and cattle and sheep can be seen leisurely grazing by the roadside.

Angkasa led us to Suriani’s place. About a dozen women wearing jilbabs (Muslim head scarves) welcomed us at the front door, humming traditional local greeting songs. Their sincere, warm welcome was abundantly evident in this simple ceremony.

These women have banded together and created a cottage industry making traditional Acehnese gold-thread embroidery for export. Each of the women takes home an average of 400,000 rupiahs (US$43) a month. Suriani, the founder of the group, has even been recognized by the president of Indonesia for her accomplishments. She also leads a prayer group on Friday nights to help women in the village find new warmth and hope.

Suriani used a small gazebo by her house to display many fine works of embroidery, including clothing, door screens, tablecloths, and coasters. Glittery sequins enliven embroidered patterns of flowers and butterflies. It’s no exaggeration to say that these ladies are the most creative amateur artists in the village.

The women chatted and joked with Angkasa, and for a moment I almost forgot that they were survivors of the tsunami. That is, until Dewi Puspita told us her story.

The day of the tsunami, Dewi was at her parents’ home with her eight-month-old daughter, Sinta. It was her 29th birthday. Her husband phoned her to wish her a happy birthday. He asked her if she wanted him to come and take them home, and told her that he had a present waiting at home for her. Just after they hung up, she felt the earth shaking. The shaking didn’t seem too bad, so she didn’t think any more about it. She was blissfully unaware that in Banda Aceh, two hours away by car, her husband, his parents, and their houses had all disappeared in the chaos.

Later, Dewi and Sinta moved into a tent city. Dewi often held Sinta and wept herself to sleep. She dreamed of her husband staring at her from a distance but never talking. She did not know whether the dreams were trying to tell her if he was alive or dead. An elder told her to accept that her husband had died and to pray to Allah to grant him peace.

"Never could I have imagined that he would die on my birthday,” Dewi said. “I will always remember his death every time my birthday comes around.” The thought of losing her considerate and caring husband brought her to tears yet again.

Many people, after losing their spouses to the tsunami, soon remarried as a way to heal the ache. Many men courted Dewi too, but she had no interest in returning their advances. She had heard that some people had been carried by the tsunami to far-off places and might still return. She decided to wait for her husband for two years.

Sutrisno was a volunteer at the tent city where Dewi and Sinta lived. He was from Langsa, near Medan. After meeting Dewi three times, Sutrisno decided to take care of her and Sinta for the rest of his life. “I took pity on her, and Sinta is so cute. I just want to protect them,” he said. He honored Dewi’s wish to wait. Two years after the tsunami they were married, and the family now lives in Great Love Village II.

"I’m really grateful that Sutrisno took us in,” Dewi said, smiling contentedly. “He dotes on Sinta. Sometimes when I’m about to discipline her, he tells me to go easy on her.”

Sinta is lively and active. The sight of her leading other children in singing and dancing clearly shows that she is growing up in a home full of love. Her laughter is vibrant and charming, and it speaks to the quality of life she has with her mother and stepfather.

Best of all, Sutrisno respects Dewi’s feelings towards her deceased husband. Every time she dreams of him, Sutrisno takes her to a mass grave where he might have been buried.

A few days after we first met them, we followed Dewi, Sutrisno, Suriani, and more than ten other villagers to the biggest mass grave in Banda Aceh. The sun warmed the lush lawn. It was hard to imagine how many hundreds of people had wept here as they watched layers of dirt being piled on the countless nameless corpses. Dewi sprinkled rose-water on the lawn as she gently chanted verses from the Koran to soothe the deceased. Her tears again flowed.

"I’m not even sure if my husband is buried here,” Dewi said sadly. “The best I can do is to visit every mass grave that I know. I can’t even put a tombstone down for him.” Sutrisno looked quietly at his wife as she grieved.

The women that had accompanied us to the mass grave gathered in a nearby gazebo. Suriani led the group in chanting the Koran for an hour. Then the children got popsicles, and we crossed the lawn to look at the memorial erected for those who had perished. The memorial looks as huge as the tsunami that it commemorates.

Dewi held hands with Sutrisno as they walked. I asked if they had anything to say to each other. With tears in her eyes, she gently grabbed his chest and said, "Please believe my real and sincere love for you. Sinta and I depend on you.” He softly replied, “Please rest assured that I will work hard to be a good husband and a good father.”

Sinta quickly hopped on the scooter as Sutrisno held it steady with his hands and his legs, limbs that will support the weight of the entire family for the rest of their lives. They took off together and were soon nothing more than a speck in the distance, speeding away. I believe that the couple will soon get what they both want: a second child.

Great Love Village III, Meulaboh
Amiruddin, 32, moved into Great Love Village III in Meulaboh in September 2007.

On the day the tsunami struck, his wife, Lili Saryani, and her mother took Debi, the couple’s daughter, out for breakfast. It was Debi’s first birthday. The tsunami waves rolled in while they were eating. Fortunately, everyone survived and were later reunited in a tent city.

Though their lives had been spared, the disaster took everything else away from them. They were left with the clothes on their backs, a little bag of Debi’s, and a few photos of their wedding that they managed to salvage from the ruins of their house.

"I was heartbroken,” said Amiruddin. “But when I saw that everyone around me seemed to have suffered equally, I was better able to accept the disaster as a test from Allah.”

As soon as they heard that Tzu Chi was going to build permanent housing for tsunami victims, they signed up. After living in the tent city for 18 months, Amiruddin and his family moved into the village. “It is a great relief to not need to pay rent every month. It helps our family a lot,” Lili observed.

However, Allah’s test for this family was not limited to the tsunami. About six months after they had moved into the village, Amiruddin touched a live electrical wire while doing some masonry work. He was injured so badly that both arms had to be amputated just below the elbows. Two major setbacks in such a short time almost took away all his strength to live. He wondered if this was really a test from Allah.

Tzu Chi came to Amiruddin’s aid once more. With the foundation’s help, Amiruddin was fitted with prostheses. He learned to put them on, take them off, and control the fingers with muscles on his back. “With the prostheses I feel more confident, and I’m no longer too shy to get out of the house,” he said.

Amiruddin is still quite capable of handling many everyday tasks, even without the prostheses. He uses a corner of their home to sell groceries. Debi’s little friends buy things from him from time to time. With his mouth, teeth, and his bare arms, he easily uses a pair of scissors to cut large snack packages into individual packs for retail sale. He writes with a pen in his mouth, and he can fetch water from the well, one bucket after another.

While her husband tends the grocery store, Lili makes and sells pastries. She gets up early each morning and gets ready for the day. At 6:30, with Debi tagging along, Lili pushes a cart of pastries out of the house. She drops Debi off at the kindergarten at 7:30. She peddles pastries at the school entrance or in the village until 3:30. Then she heads home to make more pastries for the next day. Her day doesn’t end until after nine.

The snacks Lili sells are very popular with the villagers. She nets about 40,000 rupiahs (US$4.30) on a good day. Together, the couple earns about 900,000 rupiahs (US$97) a month, placing them squarely in the middle class as far as the residents of the village are concerned. “I can’t thank Allah enough, and I have no complaints at all,” said Amiruddin of the dramatic changes and challenges of the last five years.

Meulaboh was among the first cities hit by the tsunami. Almost all the dwellings along its coast were destroyed. Following the disaster, non-governmental organizations rushed in and built between 4,000 and 5,000 units of permanent housing. Although the United Nations had suggested that new units be built at least 500 meters (0.31 mile) inland, some NGOs caved in to residents’ wishes to rebuild where their destroyed houses had once stood.

Tzu Chi volunteer Chen Jin-fu (陳金福) took us to Ujung Kalak to see the consequences of such actions. “The houses here were built in the same place as the homes destroyed in the tsunami. But the new houses were destroyed again in 2007 by mountains of drifting sand,” Chen said. “The residents turned to Tzu Chi for help.” Great Love Village III, safely located three kilometers (1.8 miles) from the sea and just six kilometers (3.6 miles) from the town center, took in some of the victims who had lost their homes for the second time.

The last phase of Village III was completed in 2009, and the final batch of residents moved in. The three on-site schools (kindergarten, elementary, and middle schools) were also inaugurated, just in time to welcome “tsunami babies” to the daycare and kindergarten.

The majority of the village residents make their living as fishermen, laborers, or farmers. They are mostly poor. Eighty percent of the families have an average monthly household income of less than a million rupiahs (US$107). Their poverty made them especially grateful to Tzu Chi for building houses and schools for them.

On the day we visited, sunlight sparkled on one blue roof after another. The walls of the houses, originally white, had been painted orange, green, or yellow, making the village more colorful. As we walked the grounds, prayers drifted from a mosque.

The great tsunami brought unprecedented destruction and rewrote the lives of so many people. However, when there is suffering, there are always kind-hearted people willing to reach out to help. Let us hope that there will be no more disasters in the land of Aceh, and that its people will know no more sorrow.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 in a Nutshell
At 7:58:55 local time in the morning of December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit 30 kilometers (19 miles) below sea level, 97 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh, at the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The shaking lasted for 500 seconds. What followed the earthquake has been rated as one of the deadliest disasters in the 21st century.

Tsunamis several stories high radiated out like monstrous ripples from the epicenter. The waves were not only huge but also lightning fast. Aceh was the first to bear the brunt of the ten-meter (33-foot) waves. Before long, the tsunami had traveled 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) and pounded 12 countries in Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa.

An estimated 292,000 people lost their lives. Over 3 million people were displaced or otherwise affected.

The Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center at Syiah Kuala University, Banda Aceh, puts the national toll of people killed in Indonesia at 230,000, while the government’s official count is 173,741. Seventy percent of the deaths occurred in Aceh. Thirty thousand of Meulaboh’s 150,000 inhabitants perished.

Tzu Chi built three communities in Panteriek, Neuheun, and Meulaboh in the Aceh area for 716, 850, and 1,002 families, respectively.

Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photos by Lin Yan-huang
Source: Tzu Chu Quarterly Spring 2010


" The future is an illusion, the past is a memory. Hold on to the goodness that is in our heart at this present moment and take care to fulfill the duties that we have at hand. "
Jing-Si Aphorism

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