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After the tsunami: A personal account from Sumatra and Sri Lanka

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by K. Williams

The earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004, killed as many as 200,000 people in countries around the Indian Ocean. In May 2005 I had the opportunity to visit two of the affected areas: the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

Aceh Province, northern Sumatra

When the tsunami struck the city of Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh Province, it swept away two thirds of this densely populated community, killing 100,000 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes and buildings. Six months after the disaster, scavengers and clean-up parties had removed most of the debris and, of course, the dead.

One day, I travelled with relief workers down the island's western coast. Here, the mountains stood like blunted green pyramids squeezed tightly together, creating awesome beauty-and a death trap for many of those who had lived in fishing villages that occupied the strip of beach at the mountains' feet. When the tsunami roared in, there was little time for the villagers to flee. In some places, even making it to high ground didn't mean survival because the waves reached 30 m high, licking up climbers and leaving behind slopes scoured to white and ochre bedrock. On a trip down the coast we passed areas where there were no relief camps and no one was rebuilding because no one survived. Current estimates place the death toll for Sumatra and its offshore islands at around 170,000.

Reconstruction is proceeding, though slowly, partly due to the sheer vast scale of the disaster and to transportation problems. City and coastal roads, bridges, and docks were washed away, and in some remote areas humanitarian relief only arrived in April by helicopter. Of boats, there remained few, most of the fishing fleet was either sunk, smashed, or swept inland. The coastline itself was altered by the earthquake that created the tsunami and by the incredible force of the waves, which in some places heaped up sand dunes yet, in others, sucked acres of land out to sea.

Despite the problems, at the time of my visit, many survivors were moving from the tent camps into more comfortable wooden barracks put up by various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Much of this salvage is going into temporary shacks built by survivors on the sites of their former homes.

I was impressed by the excellent job done by NGOs such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, CARE, Oxfam, World Vision, UNICEF in preventing disease and meeting the immediate needs of survivors. All these organizations received assistance from Canada. Their efficiency was amazing-and also a little unsettling, as such expertise only comes from practice, which underscores the fact that there's a lot of grief and trouble in the world.

I was told that immediately after the disaster some 2,000 NGOs arrived on the scene, many of them tiny ''mom-and-pop'' groups that came to do just one thing such as digging a well or delivering medicine or clothing. Confusion, duplication of effort, and turf wars happened, and I heard complaints about friction created with the government of this mostly Muslim nation when some Christian NGOs tried to hand out Bibles to survivors.

At the time of my visit, matters were starting to improve as the larger organizations began to coordinate better with each other and with the government. Still, several NGO staff and volunteers said they were concerned about the future roles of their organizations in the region. Some NGOs have been asked to help with long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation, which will require skills they may not have. They were also concerned about the legal and ethical issues in diverting to long-term projects the enormous funds pledged by the world community for humanitarian relief. A growing concern for NGOs and governments alike is that donors who pledged funds may not follow through. Some NGOs have reported shortfalls already. This will surely have a serious impact on the success of long-term projects.

The people themselves

What can one say about the Banda Acehnese? No matter how terrible their psychological and physical wounds, if one smiles at them, they smile warmly back and offer hospitality-even if home is now a tent or a barracks. One woman I met at a reunification centre chatted pleasantly with me for several minutes, asking about my country and family and thanking Canadians for their generosity. I asked how her family had fared in the disaster. Her reply: "I lost 200 relatives." She'd been in Jakarta on the day of the tsunami and returned to find her entire village gone.

Adult survivors appear to be stoic about their terrible losses, and adopt a "let's get on with life" attitude. People work to make their temporary accommodations more homelike, and tiny businesses dot the relief camps. On Sumatra's west coast I saw a 600-tonne steel coal barge sitting high and dry under a cliff, and in the shade of the great rusty hull, an enterprising survivor had opened a restaurant.

Nonetheless, this stoicism is fragile. One day I visited a cash-for-work project in which villagers received a small salary and tools for cleaning up their village site. As the group burned shattered trees and pulled up chunks of broken floors, I walked around the area, trying to picture how it looked before the disaster. Near a deep gully gouged by the tsunami, I found an identity card that had belonged to a young woman named Badirah (Indonesians go by one name only). I gave the card to the villagers and instantly their calm broke. They clustered close together, passing the card from hand to hand and asking each other anxiously, ''Have you seen her? Do you know where she is? Do you know her family?'' I walked away to spare them a stranger's curiosity in this vulnerable moment.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka the wave came ashore like a fist on the eastern and northern coasts, then wrapped itself around this teardrop-shaped island, racing along the coastline and scraping away everything and everyone in its path for 50-200 m inland. About 30,000 people died.

Reconstruction along the southern coast seems to be progressing fairly well. Neighbours deeper inland were able to help survivors, and more infrastructure, such as roads and electrical services, remained intact.

Along the eastern and northern coasts, however, the damage was more severe. There, the Sri Lankans face the same reconstruction and rehabilitation challenges as the Indonesians, including the tension of a civil war.

In both nations the work of finding and burying the dead is still going on, but the raw earth scars of the mass graves are disappearing under fresh new grass. I was shown one grave in Sumatra where 10,000 people lie in a space not much larger than the average Canadian house lot. In Banda Aceh, work has begun on surrounding the graves with permanent fences, but most sites are still marked only by yellow strips of plastic tape that flutter in the sea breeze like tongues saying, "Here we are; do not forget us."