Reliving the tsunami
Today I returned to Aceh, determined to take pictures of the same locations my team and I had photographed five years ago, when the capital Banda Aceh was completely devastated by a tsunami. At the time, I was with two Reuters journalists from the Jakarta bureau.
We landed at Aceh’s Sultan Iskandar Muda airport on December 27, 2004 – one day after the giant waves paralyzed the city, previously unaware of what a tsunami could do to a city. Information from Banda Aceh in the first few days after the disaster was very limited. It dawned on us later that the lack of news from Banda Aceh was because all of the communication facilities had been damaged.
The airport was oddly quiet. A few wounded victims were waiting for flights to take them out of Aceh. The car park was empty and we couldn’t find cars or taxis. We spotted an ambulance parked outside, so we asked the driver to take us to the city.
The owner of the vehicle was Kak Nur. Nur, a common name for Indonesian women that means light in Arabic, while “Kak” is an Indonesian reference to sister.
Just before we boarded the ambulance, Kak Nur stopped short. She said she would only take us on one condition; that we send news and photos to Jakarta that day. Otherwise, we must find ourselves other transportation. “The devastation in Aceh is vast and large,” she explained, adding that the whole of Aceh would not be able to repair the city. “Not even the whole of Indonesia can clean this city up,” she said. This was the first information about the tsunami that I had heard that day.
“There are too many damaged buildings, garbage and corpses. The people of Aceh need all the help we can get”, she said. “Your duty is to spread the word to the world what has happened to Aceh.”
We agreed. Nine of us boarded the ambulance, six local journalists and three from Reuters, cramped in beside a gurney used to transfer dead bodies onto the ambulance.
And we rolled into the ghost town.
A short distance from the airport, we reached Lambaro intersection. This is the place where corpses were stored – a makeshift morgue with piles and piles of orange body bags. I think there were at least 300 bodies stacked under the tents. This scene shocked me.
My journalistic instinct told me that these were the pictures I should file to the desk immediately. But, I was just standing there with two cameras hanging on my shoulders, staring at the bodies, stunned. I could not even cry. I decided to leave the place. I persuaded a friend to leave, and we took off, heading downtown.
The city was an awful mess, covered in garbage, debris and God knows what. Abandoned vehicles were splayed in bizarre positions. Bodies of humans, frogs, fish, cows, goats, and domestic pets just lay there.
As I reached Aceh’s Baiturrahman grand mosque, deemed by some as the most beautiful mosque on Sumatra Island, I started to play out what could have happened in my head and what kind of powerful tsunami could have caused this damage. The mosque was covered with debris and it sat about 1 kilometer (0.6214 miles) from the coast.
We could not find another car to rent. People seemed to be rushing around, and I presumed they were looking for, or taking care of their relatives.
That day money had no value. Since the ambulances were running out of petrol, we stole petrol from damaged cars, which were scattered all over the city.
It took two hours for me to accept what I was witnessing, to realize what had happened and what photographs I should take.
I decided to take pictures of some Banda Aceh landmarks, like the mosque, and returned back to the Lambaro intersection to get some more.
Around mid-afternoon, I went back to the airport to send pictures to our editing desk in Singapore.
It was the only place to file from because it was the only place that still had power. It took me more than two hours to send six pictures. A 300-kilobyte file took about 15 minutes to send, compared to now, when I can send a 2-Gigabyte file in two minutes. As I prepared to send pictures, my editor called me – then Australian newspaper editors called, followed by Japanese editors. This made me nervous as the line was very slow through an old sat phone. I remember someone said that the first day is always the hardest, and I discovered that it is true.
That day I filed pictures more than four hours before our competitors. On that day who was my angel? Kak Nur and her husband! As I was stagnant in shock as I looked at the scene, she showed me what I must do as a journalist.
For almost a month the Reuters team stayed at her house. Why? She prepared everything for us. With garbage and dead bodies everywhere, clean water was our first priority. Her neighbors cooked and cleaned our clothes, and her big family was always ready with their motorcycles to carry us around Banda Aceh.
I had covered other challenging stories before this: the religious conflict in Ambon, violence surrounding East Timor’s vote for independence, and had even been to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Aceh struck me as the worst. It shook my peace of mind that I cry too easily now, especially when I am alone.
Today, I came back, travelling along through the same routes that I went before, the same roads, and to the same places I and other Reuters photographers (Enny Nuraheni, Darren Whiteside, Supri, Kim Kyung-Hoon, and Romeo Ronoco) had been five years ago.
Beautiful gardens adorn the front of houses. Homes have roofs and are standing upright. The roads are clean. It showed me that something has moved on. Kak Nur greeted me by the door of her new house, smiling from ear to ear. Those awful memories are with me, but today I am happy.