Project Tsunami

This is a blog that charts my reporting on a 10,000-word thesis that examines the changes in one Indonesia village since it was wiped out by the 2004 tsunami. I am focusing on the village of Daya Baru, a seaside community in Calang which was the first areas hit in Indonesian by the tsunami. It was completely destroyed and I am going back in January to find out what has become of its people and their way of life.

This is a blog that charts my reporting on a 10,000-word thesis that examines the changes in one Indonesia village since it was wiped out by the 2004 tsunami. I am focusing on the village of Dayah Baru, a seaside community in Calang which was the first areas hit in Indonesian by the tsunami. It was completely destroyed and I am going back in January to find out what has become of its people and their way of life.

August 2017

Just finishing up a search of all the academic research and now meeting with longtime tsunami researcher Patrick Daly, a senior researcher at the Earth Observatory in Singapore to compare notes and better understand the data that he has and how it might help inform my project.

Jan. 2

Soon after arriving from New York, I am in a Silver Bird taxi headed to the city’s bustling neighborhood for an interview with the former Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf. Over some good red wine, Yusuf recounted his days as an intelligence officer with GAM and his narrow escape from prison when the tsunami hit. He managed to climb through a roof and out to freedom and was later reunited with his surviving wife and children _ all who survived thanks to a neighbor who happened to be with the military police. Easy going with a ready laugh, Yusuf recounted his reluctant campign for governor and tenure that brought Aceh free health care and a popular scholarship program for young people. He  turned bitter when the talk turned to his election defeat in 2012 which he blamed on divisions within GAM. Still, he seemed content to move on and was about to head off the next day for train to become a licensed pilot.

Jan. 3

After spending the night in Jakarta, I’ve survived the packed Jakarta International Airport and delays with Lion Air (a wheel problem) to make my way to Banda Aceh. It remains off-the-beaten track. I was the only foreigner on the flight and the plane was the only one taxing in post-tsunami airport. Fakri Karim _ sturdily built and youthful looking despite a touch of great _ and my former colleague Febby Aktas who is helping set things up here in Banda Aceh. It was Friday prayers so the roads leading to the city were busy with young men in their sarongs walking briskly to the mosque. All lunch spots were closed as they are during Friday prayers so I headed to Hermes hotel.

Fakri, who spent the first few years after the tsunami helping rebuild his hometown of Calang, is in Banda Aceh with his wife and two children. After grabbing some tasty goat curry, we recounted his first harried days after the tsunami. He was in Jakarta working with with a logistics company when the disaster hit but caught a flight the next day. His sister and brother were in Banda Aceh and he had no idea whether they were alive. Phoen lines were down and rumors were spready the entire city was destryoyed. He walked out of the airport and caught a motorcyclist who promised Fakri his family’s neighborhood was far enough from the sea and wasn’t impacted. Still, he wasn’t convinced. Driving along the mostly empty roadway, he saw the first piles of bodies. They were being dumped in what would eventually become one of the city’s biggest mass graves. But there was more. He crossed over a river leading in the city and saw stacks and stacks of  bloated bodies piled up against a bridge abutment. He remembered one body in particular – the body of a woman with a child clinging to it. Survivors were frantically searching the corpses for loved ones. He managed to reach his family’s house only to see it empty and the car gone _ again raising fears that his sister and brother may have been out and caught in the wave that ripped through the city like a thunderous river. But a neighborhood ensured him they were safe and that they had joned the panicked rush for higher ground after the quake. He found them at a relatives house and started planning to bring them back to Jakarta.

But with no flights available and his siblings unwilling to leave Aceh, Fakri turned his attention on Dec. 28 to famly in Calang. He wasn’t sure if anyone survived in his coastal village of Dayah Baru – with one person saying only the village chief was alive. But then a survivor managed to catch a military flight out of Calang and found his way to their house – listing off whose uncles, aunts, fathers, mothers and brothers had survived and who had not. Knowing there were survivors, Karim joined several other men from the Calang area who were in Banda Aceh. They commandeered a tuna boat to start ferry food, water and medicines to the makeshift camps that had been set up but he also convinced a local timber barron to set aside a warehouse for a camp in Banda Aceh. He made the rounds of the NGOs and the emergency post to pick up what supplies he could and a camp was born complete with a public kitchen, clinic and tents.

We joined Fakri and his family at a local seafood restaurant with a stunning view of the coast. The area Ulee was literally piles of rubble when I toured it in the early days of the tsunami. But like much of Banda Aceh, there are few signs these days that a tsunami had laid waste to the area. That could be said for most of Banda Aceh. Except for the mass graves which are now parks and the tsunami museum, Banda Aceh has the feel of a bustling trading hub. There are new malls, tons of roadside stalls selling crab noodle, xxx. At dinner, his youngest brother Rizqan _ 17 at the time of the tsunami- recounted how he remains traumatized. He still sets off running whenever there is an earthquake and loud noises spook him. Rizaqn and his sister Dynam Sofya _ now a lawyer with her husband _ talked of how Fakri’s returned steadied them in the early days. They had lost their paretns in xx so having the oldest brother around gave them a sense that things would eventually be fine.

Another sister Sabariah was in Java during the tsunami. But like the others, she rcounted how the disaster inadvertly brought peace to Aceh. It has meant plenty of freedom to out at night and no longer any firefights at a nearby rice paddy. The peace has special meaning for Sabariah, who was a teacher in Kreung Sabi. That became a battle ground between GAM and the TNI soon after Suharto’s downfall in 1999. Sabariah saw a student shot and was forced to endure GAM turning her school into its home base. Constantly in fear of her life, Sabariah eventually became so traumatized that she relocated to Banda Aceh. She spent a year in hospital wth an ulcer and other ailments.

With so much death and destruction in Aceh, part of me wonders whether Fakri’s family is the best to follow for this project. Compared to most, Fakri’s immedate family was lucky. Their house in Banda Aceh was untouched and everyone survived. But then Fakri casually mentioned a grandmother who died in Dayah Baru. She was a true hero, going door to door trying to save her relatives. She remembered the tales of tsunamis of past _ mentioned in one local lullaby _ that the only chance for survival was to head to higher ground. Fakri later named his newborn daughter after his grandmother and maybe her tale could get us started. Next stop Calang.

Jan. 4

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