Aceh: One Year Ago and Today

One Year Ago

At 6:58 a.m. local time on 26 December 2004, a trembling started in the ocean off Sumatra Island some 155 miles southeast of Banda Aceh and two hundred miles west of Medan. The shaking grew stronger and stronger and lasted for ten minutes. The quake measured 9.15 on the Richter scale, making it the strongest in forty years and the fourth most powerful in a century. The power of the earthquake was equivalent to one hundred gigatons of TNT (about as much energy as the United States uses in six months). It caused the planet to vibrate a few centimeters. Buildings were flattened all along the coast of Aceh province in Indonesia.

Later, television stations and VCDs showed footage shot by amateur cameramen. Videographers followed crowds at a slow pace, idly pausing over cracked buildings, fallen roofs and people crying in the streets. All of a sudden, something changed. The crowds began to run. Someone raced past the camera’s view, shouting something. Then came motorcycles and small trucks. You could sense the panic. The camera, too, seemed to be running, aimed at the ground while the cameraman forgot he was filming and tried to get away from danger. He hopped on a friend’s motorbike and the two drove off quickly.

The scene then cut to a new piece of footage, showing water perhaps fifteen to twenty feet deep pouring through the city of Banda Aceh, sweeping rubble, wood, pieces of houses, clothing and bodies in front of it. We have no idea if this second piece of film is shot by the same cameraman.

Generated by the incredible energy released by the earthquake, the tsunami came in multiple waves, some over thirty feet high, which built up speeds of over five hundred miles per hour and took up to two and a half hours to arrive. The waves came with little warning and struck countries near the Indian Ocean basin.

On the first day, the number of dead was measured in the thousands. A massive wave struck Sri Lanka (over one thousand miles from the epicenter), killing over six thousand individuals. Nearly five hundred were killed in Thailand—mostly tourists swept out to sea. Some sixty-eight were killed in Malaysia; nearly all were from Penang and Ipoh. Over two thousand were killed in India, and there were casualties reported from as far away as Somalia. The Maldives, made up of about 1,200 islands resting just three feet above sea level, were completely flooded. AFP, a global news agency, initially reported that, “some 11,460 people were killed and thousands more were missing after a powerful earthquake triggered giant tidal waves.”

The handful of initial responders worked at great odds to overcome logistical challenges to deliver aid. Relief work, first measured in the millions of dollars, would soon total more than one billion dollars. Aid workers would number in the thousands. And casualty counts would climb steeply in the hours, days and weeks to come.

Recovering from the devastation one year ago

One Year Later
It is one year later and I have recently returned (carrying seven CDs filled with pictures) from a five-day research trip. It was during this trip that I gained several insights concerning the existing work in Aceh. The government of Indonesia views work in Aceh in three stages: the initial emergency effort, the current recovery effort and the future rebuilding effort. At this point, they are well out of the emergency stage and deep into recovery. Work is focused on rebuilding homes and providing for peoples’ basic lives. In the next stage, longer-term infrastructure (the further development of business, ports, education, etc.) will be the primary focus.

Aceh province has a population of about 4.2 million, divided into twenty-seven districts and many other sub-districts. There are 3,400 humanitarian aid agencies projects going on in these areas. The United Nations provides logistical coordination and data reporting services. They have divided these aid programs into thirteen categories: agriculture and fisheries, coordination, education, food, health and medical, infrastructure rehabilitation, shelter, non-food items, protection, water, sanitation, livelihood rebuilding and community development. Initiatives are fairly evenly divided in these categories, with the big leader being health and medical (seventeen percent of all efforts) and the rest receiving on average ten percent.

The initiatives, however, are not geographically even. Most of the effort is concentrated in Aceh Besar (twenty-five percent) and Banda Aceh (a district within Aceh Besar, twelve percent), as well as Aceh Barat (where Meluboh is located, forteen percent). Districts receiving slightly less attention include Aceh Jaya (nine percent), Bireuen (five percent), Pidie (five percent), Nias (five percent) and Simeulue (five percent). Each of these districts were affected to some degree by the tsunami. Other interior provinces do not receive significant effort.

Many of the aid agencies are larger organizations which have a significant amount of inflexibility in their programs. There are some smaller groups that are able to react with speed to individual needs. The larger Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are primarily focused on clean water, sanitation, business reconstruction and housing.

Although there were some rumors that relief agencies would be required to leave, the current situation is that all aid agencies must register their plans with the government. Provided their plans meet a real need, they will be allowed to remain for several years. Afterward, their operations will be reviewed and, if they are continuing to meet a need, may be allowed to stay longer.

As one would expect, no open evangelism is permitted. There have been some isolated incidents of people openly handing out tracts or using films, but most workers understand that this is not a time for mass crusades; this is a time to bless the Acehenese people, who are in desperate need.

Although life is more stable and there is not the same measure of fear, the quality of life remains tenuous. I met several Acehnese and heard many stories that demonstrate this. Here are four:

1. One man began talking to me in a long stream of Indonesian. When he realized I didn’t speak the language, he began again in broken English, obviously wanting to share his story. From him (and later from others), I learned most of his tale. He was a fisherman and had been out in his boat when the tsunami came in. The waves killed his wife and children. When he returned to Banda Aceh, his area of the city was destroyed. It took him a long time to make his way to his house, which he found in rubble. His wife was dead, pinned under a beam. He went to find an Australian soldier because he had seen how they gently managed the bodies. He found a soldier and asked him to come with an excavator and lift the beam away. Fortunately, the man’s wife’s body was not broken and he was able to bury her. That gave him a measure of peace; however, it was obvious when he talked with me that he was still haunted by it.

2. One lady told her story to a friend of mine. Her husband and two children had been killed in the tsunami. She and a third child had been swept out to sea. She had floated for a day and a night, grabbing on to whatever she could. She managed to survive by finding floating coconuts, which she opened in order to use the juice for sustenance. To this day this woman is shaken and her eyes are empty of anything except pain.

3. One young man was in a boat that was carried into the city on the tsunami wave. All the others on the boat had abandoned ship. All, except the young man who remained with the ship, were killed. He was pinned under the boat and suffered severe injuries. However, he has recovered and today makes a living driving a small motorcycle taxi which was provided by a local NGO.

4. There is a huge power barge in Banda Aceh that was lifted and brought more than two kilometers inland to rest inside the city. Because it is too large to move, residents have decided to build their homes around it. Perhaps it will be a museum one day.

Nearly one year later, tens of thousands of people who had previously been only registered as “missing” will be considered “dead.” There remains a significant amount of reconstruction to be done. This is certainly no time to turn our back on this province.

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at