Photographers' Blog

Revisiting the ghosts of Aceh

By Beawiharta

I remember well the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. I stayed for more than six weeks in Banda Aceh and then flew back to Jakarta to recover. In Jakarta, I cried everywhere when nobody was around me; at the office, at home, on the street, I was always crying. The situation was embarrassing, but I couldn’t stop the tears. They were automatic.

My brain couldn’t run from the images that I took of the tsunami aftermath. The counselor told me that I must go back to Aceh to take different pictures; positive pictures. Like people building their houses or shop stalls, children going back to school or singing songs happily.

Last week, I flew back to Aceh to cover the 8.6 magnitude earthquake. When I heard confirmation that there was no resulting tsunami, I was happy because I would not be taking pictures of sadness again here, in Aceh.

Upon arrival I drove around Banda Aceh city looking for pictures. After more than three hours, I was still having difficulty finding any damaged buildings or clear indications that the area had been hit by a massive earthquake, except for a collapsed prison wall. Shops were open, people were on the street, men fished at the port, and youths enjoyed a day at the beach. Life looked normal.

It was different from after the 2004 tsunami when it was difficult to even find a car on the street due to heavy road damage and debris. A lot of people died on the street and the injured were everywhere.

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.

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