Up until six and a half years ago Aceh was a name that few people knew. For years the region at the northern tip of Sumatra was a no-go area thanks to the Free Aceh guerrilla insurgency that was seeking independence for the region underpinned by discontent about central government appropriation of Acehnese resources (oil had been found offshore Aceh in the 70's), an influx of outsiders and a desire for a greater role for sharia in local law. The almost three decades of conflict had claimed some 15,000 lives. All that was to change on Boxing Day 2004 when the third largest earthquake ever to be recorded struck off the northwestern coast of Sumatra. The resulting tsunami spread far and wide, causing immense casualties in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia and even as far as South Africa. The brunt of nature's force, however, was borne by Aceh which experienced some 70% of the total 185,000 casualties and the capital, Banda Aceh, was almost wiped from the map.
|The owners of this house probably weren't too pleased to find that someone had parked a boat on their roof despite the very obvious sign.|
Visiting Banda Aceh now it is hard to imagine such a tremendous disaster befell the place. The streets, though not paved with gold, are at least paved and host squadrons of scooters zipping between the cars, whilst customers dine at streetside eateries. Nothing to distinguish this sleepy, provincial town from so many others (except that perhaps the roads and pavements are in slightly better condition than the average). But if you know where to look then the past can be seen. On the road to the port rubble and the low remains of walls can be made out; further inland a giant generator barge sits amid houses, immovable from the spot it was dumped by the tsunami wave; on the other side of town a residential house sports a large fishing boat as a novel roof decoration; and the new tsunami museum synthesises what happened on that fateful day.
|This giant generator barge was swept 5km inland by the tsunami. The most astonishing thing is that it was dropped in position by the wave, not dragged, and so the buildings surrounding it are still more or less intact.|
It is a tribute to the Acehnese people and international solidarity how quickly a town that was so comprehensively flattened and lost more than half its population have recovered. Many of today's inhabitants come from the surrounding region, but if you find someone who was there when the water came then you can hear some truly humbling stories. One girl I met lost 28 classmates to the destructive wave and was severely traumatised from witnessing the carnage of the aftermath. Having been to the museum, seen the photos, read online accounts, talked to people I still think the enormity of it eludes me. Oddly it was a remark my friend made that marked me the most. She said that she was surprised that the bodies of the victims were all black, as if burned, probably due to the silt and muck borne by the wave. I cannot even begin to imagine the suffering as well as the resilience of the people who were there and survived.
Although the tsunami brought untold suffering to Aceh, it also brought hope and a new beginning. The cataclysmic nature of the disaster made both sides in the long-running conflict put down their guns in the name of humanitarianism to allow relief and rescue workers come to the aid of the survivors. This rapprochement and necessary pragmatism allowed the signing of peace accords in 2005 that saw the end of the conflict with Aceh declared a special, autonomous region within Indonesia, with its own civil law based on sharia. The erstwhile guerrilla leaders became the new governors and a peace settled on the devastated province. People no longer had to stay indoors during nighttime curfews that, during the insurgency, would see forces from both sides targetting unaffiliated males, "disappearing" them in the middle of the night. Everyone I've spoken to has seen the tsunami as a turning point for the region and an opportunity for making a fresh start.
|The kerkhof in Banda Aceh, the Dutch colonial cemetery. A fascinating testament to people who grew up half a world a way and came over to Sumatra to seek their fortune and eventually die there, far from home.|
Just off the northern tip of Sumatra, visible from Banda Aceh, lies the small island of Weh. Isolated as it was from the mainland it escaped most of the troubles and even didn't suffer so much from the tsunami. This is where local Acehnese go to relax, and now that the region has opened up and is no longer dangerous there are many more foreigners coming to have some fun too. Not that it's a party island like Bali, but the locals are more moderate than their mainland brethren (as an aside, Aceh is considered the most religiously conservative region in Indonesia, but if that's the case then that speaks volumes about Indonesians' easy-going nature, because compared to Peninsular Malaysia Aceh is quite liberal indeed), and the pace of life is taken down several notches. But the main draw is the many coral reefs that surround the island, host to rich marine life thanks to the currents created by the Indian Ocean meeting the Straight of Malacca. Since no-one in Banda Aceh can imagine coming to their town without visiting Weh, I succumbed and took the ferry over, seeing whether I remembered the lessons from my recent diving course. Cheap accommodation, smiling locals, beautiful vistas nary a traffic horn to disturb the peace and I can easily imagine myself among the Lotus Eaters. Nevertheless I did manage to fit in a dive (and still remembered the different valves and most of the hand signals). It was deeper and the current much stronger than my previous dives and I was rewarded with a sighting of a large (about 2m) reef shark, which certainly made my day. There was also another reason for visiting Weh, and one which appealed to the inner stamp-collector in me. The tip of Weh is the westernmost point and kilometre zero for Indonesia. The other end is over 5000km away in Papua. I'm curious to see how far I'll get.
On my last day in Aceh, returning from Weh, the wind was whipping in off the Indian ocean, bringing a heavy downpour with it for most of the day. Then in the afternoon there was a slight earthquake (which I later found to be 5.6 on the Richter scale) that made the buildings shake a little. It was a sign for me to get moving again and so I boarded a minibus heading south, which is the only direction you can go from Banda Aceh. Sumatra is a long island, 2500km from end to end, and public transport is painfully slow on its potholed roads, barely averaging more than 45km/h, so there's plenty to see before I get to the other end (and continue with the other islands).