At 5.30 am Sunday 26 December 2004 people in Aceh were performing the dawn prayer but at 7.58 am, about 30 kilometres below the surface of the Indian Ocean approximately 150 kilometres off the coast of Aceh, at the triple point junction of three tectonic plates, geological forces reached breaking point and a fault started to rupture.
The western side of the undersea mountain range on the edge of the plate was thrust up by as much as 12 metres. At twice the speed of a bullet, the plates unzipped over a distance of more than 1,200 kilometres lifting the seabed of around 300,000 square kilometres of the ocean floor as well as the entire ocean above causing one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history.
Even though the jolt of the powerful earthquake was stronger than other quakes experienced in the past, living in the ring of fire the Acehnese are used to earthquakes and they carried on normally although in the town a number of buildings had been damaged.
The Acehnese had been living with sudden death for almost 150 years since the Dutch invasion in 1854. The 30 years before the tsunami had seen 15,000 people killed in a brutal military conflict with the Acehnese wanting independence from Indonesia.
But nothing could have prepared them for what was to come on this day. Around 20 minutes after the earthquake, a 30 metre high wall of water hit the shore. The earthquake had displaced 200 trillion tonnes of water travelling at over 800 kilometres an hour.
As it neared coasts and entered shallow water it released the energy equivalent to about five megatons of TNT, more than twice the total explosive energy used during all of World War II (including the two atomic bombs).
About half an hour after the earthquake, all along the coast, huge waves full of debris; some more than 30 meters high struck the shore with a velocity of between 80 to 50 kilometres an hour penetrating up to 5 kilometres inland. A series of waves, hit after the first wave with smaller tsunamis continuing for the rest of the day.
Along an 800 kilometres stretch of coastline (almost the same distance between Paris and Berlin) the homes of 150,000 people were destroyed completely erasing villages leaving only the concrete floors where houses and other buildings once stood. The west coast highway ended up in the ocean and bridges were tossed them hundreds of metres away. Around 4% of the population died, decimating the educated elite in Banda Aceh. Households and the private sector bore the brunt of the loss loosing 2.8 billion USD.
All along the coast fishermen’s wives and children were waiting for the husbands and fathers to return home and on the beaches of Banda Aceh families were taking advantage of the weekend to bathe early before the sun became too hot. When the waves retreated many unaware started to pick up the fish.
In Meulaboh which was closer to the epicentre, some of my wife’s relatives who lived on the coast were cooking the fish for their restaurant. None of them survived. The crew of a 15,000 ton generator ship moored 3 km offshore were having their breakfast only to be dumped 4 kilometres inland in the middle of the town.
In Meureuhom Daya (Lamno) more than 50 Acehnese families with fair complexions, blue eyes and blond hair descendants of shipwrecked European sailors from the 17th century were out fishing or having breakfast when the fury of the sea that had brought them there destroyed their unique community in just a few terrible minutes leaving only one or two families behind.
In the prison of Banda Aceh Irwandi Yusuf, a professor of veterinary science was in jail for subversion accused of supporting the Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM). He had been tortured frequently. Seeing the rising waters, he ran to the prayer room in the jail as the guards had locked the doors of the prison and run away trying to escape the wall of water.
He found that the ceiling which was supposed to be solid concrete was, in fact made of asbestos. With a quick prayer of thanks for the corruption of the contractor, he punched a hole through the ceiling and pushed open the corrugated iron roof to see only two others had survived – a petty thief and a guard.
After the waters had receded three hours later he searched frantically for his family, found they were safe and escaped to Jakarta and left the country on a forged passport.
My nephews Bukhari, Shuahda and their families perished as well.
In Jakarta the Vice President of Indonesia who was finalising the plans for a peace resolution to a long running conflict with Acehnese independence fighters had to delay the negotiations between the Government of Indonesia and GAM (The Aceh Independence Movement) but in 2006 an agreement was reached and fighting ceased and free and fair elections were held seeing the former freedom fighters like Irwandi become the first democratically elected Governor of Aceh and other GAM leaders become elected heads of Districts.
As the surreal gradually became real, the world responded with compassion, concern and practical help which is continuing even after four years. Collections were made in workplaces, schools, football matches, mosques, churches and temples.
The response to the disaster says something about the decency of ordinary people and the meanness of the world’s politicians. It took immense pressure from ordinary people to force the British and US governments to come up with funding.
Initially Tony Blair’s government only pledged £1 million and George Bush was equally stingy with a first pledge of only $15 million. Within days the American and British public raised an enormous amount shaming their governments into increasing their commitments.
But it also does say something about attitudes towards tragedies and deaths caused by conflict, poverty, malnutrition and disease.
On 16 April 2005 using an out of the box solution, the Indonesian Government created a unique institution, the BRR, (the Agency of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for the Region and Community of Aceh and Nias) to oversee the local and international aid effort.
It was given a clear time frame of four years ending in April 2009 and has been praised for getting the job done without the corruption that routinely infects Indonesian government projects. Through the agency it was possible to expedite the work and overcome bureaucratic impediments which would have delayed the recovery process.
Both in Malaysia with only 68 deaths and Sri Lanka, the rehabilitation and recover projects were tainted with mismanagement and allegations of corruption.
Some people and preachers started to blame the tsunami on the sins of the Acehnese; others said it was a test from God. Some hard-line preachers from other parts of Indonesia from the now banned FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) came and wanted to expel all the foreigners who had come to help, the ever pragmatic Acehnese said – you are bringing hoes, they are bringing heavy equipment.
On one occasion one of the FPI preachers during Friday prayers was lecturing the congregation that the tsunami was God’s punishment of the Acehnese who immediately ejected him from the pulpit and substituted with a new preacher.
Dr Azman, the Chief Imam of the Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh, rejected the sin or test explanation and called on the Acehnese neither blame God nor the people for this disaster. Rather than thinking that it was a test from God or a punishment for deviating from God’s teachings, he clarified that the tsunami was a natural disaster pure and simple and that the real tests from God come not after His blessings are taken away but while they are in our possession.
He quoted a saying of Prophet Muhammad (s) which related that the real test comes when we have knowledge, health, wealth and strength and that we will be asked as to what use did we put our knowledge, health, wealth and strength when we had them?
The test after the tsunami is on how we help those who survive.