Friday, January 08, 2010

5 Years On: The Tsunami In Aceh

It's been just over five years since the "cobra wave" lashed out in the Indian Ocean on the morning of December 26th in 2004. I went to investigate while living in Indonesia in the summer of 2005 and filed this story for the Hong Kong Standard.

For donations at Uleh-leh
Six months later, the scene was still a horrific one. There were fragments of bone embedded in the parched land, shallow mass graves exposing limbs and packs of dogs roaming around. But there was also hope - I met this survivor, a young man by the name of Akbar, who generously shared his story with me. Here's a snippet:

"Standing amid the collapsed rubble of Merduati, a kampong, or neighborhood, in the city of Banda Aceh, there is little sign of rebuilding and Akbar finds it difficult to feel much hope.

Instead, he points to where he was sleeping when the "cobra wave" struck. "Like a blender" it overturned and churned the furniture in the ground floor bedroom. Fleeing upstairs from the fast-rising water, he leapt out the window and ran towards the Baiturrahman Mosque near the city center.

He wasn't fast enough. The wave swallowed up Akbar, carrying him along amid the debris and carnage until he clutched a branch at the top of a tree and held on for his life. He stayed there for more than two hours, watching bodies, trucks and parts of houses, the entire life of his hometown, swirl beneath him as the wave slowly receded back into the heart of the Indian Ocean.

When Akbar eventually returned to his home, it was flattened and the tsunami had extracted a precious toll: Twelve members of his family including his father had been killed.

Now Akbar's face seems far older than his 25 years as he recalls that day. Walking among the broken shards of cement at the edge of the ocean at Uleh-leh, the former village where the wave first struck, shadows of remorse and bitterness darken his expression. He stops and stares pensively at Pulau Weh, a small island off shore, then gazes out to the wide open sea beyond.

"Is that where it came from?" I asked.

Akbar nodded then swept his arm across the horizon, "And from there, there, everywhere."

Today his mother and older brother live in Meulaboh, 250 kilometers south along the coast. He rarely sees them as the road connecting the two cities has not yet been repaired after being wiped out by the tsunami. It takes about nine hours over a rough mountain pass, much of it gravel, to reach the town.

Akbar is the only one of his family to have remained in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, living with a friend while studying nursing at the University of Muhammadiyah. He is determined to keep going. When he can he works as a taxi driver, hoping to earn enough to rebuild his home."

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