Reporter’s Notebook — Memories of the Aceh tsunami never fade
By Dean Yates
I wonder if Adnan Ibrahim ever found his son or Munawar Jamaluddin ever located his daughter. As much as I hope they did, I doubt it. Both men were part of the drama that unfolded in Indonesia’s Aceh province on Dec. 26, 2004, when a 9.15 magnitude earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that killed 226,000 people in a dozen countries. In Aceh, where a succession of waves surged inland for up to several kilometres, the death toll alone was 166,000.
I met Adnan, 62, a week after the tsunami. He was scouring a refugee camp in the provincial capital Banda Aceh for information about his son, Syawaluddin, 17. As he broke into sobs, Adnan kept talking about how well his son was doing at school.
“The boy is very smart. He is good with computers,” he said.
Six months later, I went back to Aceh to report on how people were coping. Looking through Aceh’s main newspaper, my colleague Beawiharta, a Reuters photographer, saw notices placed by parents still seeking information about their missing children. We telephoned one of the parents, Munawar Jamaluddin, to see if he would talk about his search for his daughter. He invited us to his home, where he told his heartbreaking story.
Just before Munawar’s pregnant wife died from injuries a day after the tsunami, she pleaded with him to find their daughter, not quite three years old, who she saw running away from the black wall of water before it reached their home. Munawar had been looking for six months.
“In my heart, I know my child is alive,” Munawar said, trying to hold back tears.
What do you say to people like Munawar? How can you give them comfort? Beawiharta and I — both of us fathers of young children — felt so inadequate. All we could say was that we were sorry.
Five years has passed, but it does not dim the memories of reporting on this enormous catastrophe. The distraught parents who lost their children. The children who were orphaned.
I am still haunted by the face of a child who had been badly burned in a fire following the earthquake. The child, lying on a cot in scorching heat, had been flown by helicopter to Banda Aceh airport to be airlifted to a better hospital outside the province. For some reason the child reminded me of my four-year-old son Patrick, an Indonesian boy my wife and I had adopted a few years earlier in Jakarta. It was too much. Before I could ask aid workers about the child, tears welled in my eyes. I had to walk away.
Earlier this year while searching the Reuters pictures database for a photograph to illustrate a blog on the elections in Indonesia, the same face suddenly stared out at me.
Beawiharta had photographed the very same child, who happened to be a girl. I was struck cold, instantly taken back to that moment when I first saw her, but at the time not knowing whether the child was a boy or a girl because of her burns. Did she survive? I will never know.
Everyone who went to Aceh after the tsunami was affected in some way. It did not matter whether you were a reporter, an aid worker or a government official.
“I have been in war and I have been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I have never seen anything like this,” said former soldier Colin Powell, then the U.S. secretary of state, after seeing a stretch of the devastation.
The coastline had been stripped bare for hundreds of kilometres. Some towns and villages ceased to exist. All that was left were marks in the ground where foundations once stood.
A month after the tsunami struck, I went to Leupung. The town was a mere 40 km (25 miles) south of Banda Aceh, but had only just become reachable by road after a collapsed bridge was repaired. Once home to 10,000 people, not a single house or building remained standing.
Several dozen men dragged decomposed bodies out of rubble and twisted trees before lowering them into graves dug with farming hoes. With few shovels, gloves or face masks, they had decided to stay and bury the dead. Other survivors had left on foot for refugee camps in Banda Aceh.
“There are still many more bodies. We are using our own hands,” said Armanizar, 27, a driver, as he dug a tiny grave for a child.
Throughout it all I saw great acts of kindness and generosity. Indonesian volunteers from all over the country descended on Aceh, wanting to help in any way they could.
In that first week in Banda Aceh, there was virtually no transport because of petrol shortages. But those who had a working car or motorbike would often stop for a reporter gesturing for a ride. Most refused to accept money. I remember one young man on a motorbike saying he could
not take the money I offered because the world needed to see what the tsunami had done to Aceh. That was what mattered, he said.
Reuters and the Red Cross have produced a multimedia web documentary entitled “Surviving the Tsunami: Stories of Hope”. The production combines interviews with survivors, imagery by award-winning Reuters photographers and interactive graphics showing the impact of the tsunami across 13 countries. To see the documentary go to http://tsunami.trust.org.