|Tsunami shattered building in
It is believed that the world discovered the spicy islands beginning from ACEH, pronounced as Acheh in the Acehnese language. It is said that ACEH is an acronym of their ethnic composition, i.e. Arab, Chinese, European and Hindi.
Muslim traders from Arabia and later from India established their trade route with Banda Aceh as their port of entry. With trade, came Islam into Indonesia and the province of Aceh became Aceh Dar-es-Salam (the gate to peace).
It is estimated that the area lost 30% to 40% of the pre-tsunami population of over 400,000. From the approximate twenty square kilometers, a third of Banda Aceh has been completely wiped off, while another third remains under water and mud. Yet, with hundreds of mosques, schools and markets, Banda Aceh DaresSalam continues to maintain its distinctly unique historical position in Indonesia.
The Indonesian independence movement is said to have originated from the fiercely independent minded Acehnese. Their unique character remains unchanged. After independence from the Dutch, the Acehnese preferred to remain autonomous and give away their due share to the rest of the Indonesia. In reciprocity, the newly emerged Government of Indonesia (Gen. Sukarno at the time) let Aceh establish Islamic law, as the law of the land.
The Tsunami changed "everything," particularly in the city of Banda Aceh. It was a quiet little town with many beautiful beaches (Ujong Batee, Lam Puuk and Lhok Nga) with their clean blue waters, white sands and sunsets.
Quietly, a wise man Azmi makes his confession to me, that he misses the serenity and purity in the quietness of Banda Aceh. But, he said the overwhelming presence of others is necessary and appreciated.
|An ocean of destruction. Banda Aceh|
The earthquake and Tsunami generated rubble of Banda Aceh is left "as is." The rebuilding master plan, expected to top $4.5 billion over five years, assuming the promised international aid is realized. The money is scheduled to be released late March. The plan is expected to comprise of (a) redistribution of land to the survivors, (b) rebuilding the infrastructure in the devastated areas, and, most importantly (c) programs to rehabilitate the survivors to their pre-Tsunami position.
|June 23, 2004: The pristine Banda Aceh shoreline before Tsunami.|
Click image to enlarge
|December 28, 2004: 2 Kilometer shoreline of Banda Aceh wiped out after Tsunami.|
The people of Aceh have their own plans. Bahar, a 50-year-old survivor, and a geologist by profession, has lost his entire family including his elderly parents, wife and three children. He is now leading the rebuilding efforts of a self-contained temporary village for the survivors of his washed away beach village, Ulee Lheu. He is also organizing a rally on the one-hundredth day at the very shore where tragedy engulfed thousands of his fellow villagers to make a statement of their will and determination. Bahar says, "there's nothing around, I'm the old man and I got to work."
The Bait-ur-Rahman Grand Mosque, one of the most outstanding landmarks in the capital city, best demonstrates the character of the Acehnese people. The old mosque that stood there before it was burnt down at the beginning of the Aceh War, was rebuilt in 1875, taking its present shape after a number of renovations and expansions. The Acehnese continue to remain in modestly built homes but their commitment to make their house of worship the best says it all.
Dr. Azzman Ismail, the Chief Imam of Bait-ur-Rahman Mosque confirms at least 50 mosques, 100 musholas (room set aside in public place for religious duties) and more than 75 pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) have suffered destruction in his city of Banda Aceh.
My Garuda Airlines flight to Banda Aceh has its own unique memories. My on board neighbor was a hijab clad World Health Organization official, Dr. Rossi. Across the aisle was a young man, who I later came to know as Yusri. After having lost all family members and getting severely injured his left eye, Yusri was returning to his native town of Banda Aceh for the first time from Jakarta after a two month treatment.
Everyone in the plane was leaning toward the window to catch a glimpse of the green Banda Aceh landscape. I was trying to catch the expressions of Yusri who was quietly wiping his tears. My feelings paralleled my first glimpse of Kaba in Makkah and entering the town of our beloved Prophet. There, in awe of Majesty and Mercy and here in humility for the humanity.
|Shakeel Syed with orphan children in Banda Aceh. - March 2005|
Banda Aceh airport was designed for receiving only a limited number of flights a day. The baggage conveyor belt at the airport was no wider than the check in counter belt at a major grocery store in America. Over one hundred flights swarmed in immediately after the Tsunami hit tapering now to about ten flights a day. Garuda alone records a tenfold increase in its cargo business from 3 tons to 30 tons a day to Banda Aceh. This excludes the myriad other governmental and non-governmental shipments pouring into Banda Aceh.
Outside the airport, there was a display of big and bigger cars with a collage of mind bogling logos on them. Our hosts (PKPU - Pos Keadilan Peduli Ummat, Center for Justice and Care for the Ummah & DD - Dompet Dhuafa, Wallet of the Poor) graciously and briskly got us in their cars to leave the airport.
Our solemn tour began with a visit to one of the first and many mass graves (Tempat Pemakaman) barely few kilometers from the airport. This particular mass grave housed "twenty thousand victims" of earthquake and Tsunami disaster (Korban Bencana Gempa - Tsunami), buried a day after the tragedy on December 26, 2004.
This solemn experience holds no parallel in my memory. Never in my adult life, I cried so easily. I questioned myself looking at the football field size mass grave, how do I pray for "twenty thousand people?" My imaginations led me to see a wailing seventy-year-old grandfather loosing his grip over his seven-year-old grand daughter and a newly wed Acehnese daughter frantically crying for her beloved. I cried more, until my host gently tapped my shoulder and reminded, "today is your day of arrival in Banda Aceh!"
Shakeel Syed toured Banda Aceh, Sigli and other coastal towns of Aceh in Feb-March 2005, about two months after the Dec 26, 2004 catastrophe. He is a freelance writer on socio-political issues and can be reached at [email protected].
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