The Asian Tsunami: An Eyewitness Account of the Suffering and Problems of People in Aceh

Two months after the Indian Ocean tsunami, people in Aceh and many other areas are living in appalling conditions.  DR. AUSAF AHSAN,  from Bangalore, India, travelled to Aceh to assist the relief effort there.


On Eid day Rizal took me around Blang Passe, a village on the eastern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about 150 kilometres (roughly 90 miles) south of Banda Aceh, to let me see the remains of his village. He lost his twelve-year-old daughter, but fortunately his wife and little baby were spared. He showed me a heap of rubble and told me that once his house stood there (picture on right). Rizal’s wife, Husnavati, is gradually recovering from the terrible mental shock. Rizal and his friend Zulfan together have set up a community kitchen for people in the neighbourhood. They offered me cooked meat of qurban with soulful hospitality.

In one of the biggest-ever natural disasters in human history, in terms of life and material loss, deadly tidal waves swept across the coasts of the Indian Ocean on December 26. Over 350,000 perished in 20 minutes. It is estimated that more than 100,000 children have been orphaned. Thousands of hectares of land have become unsuitable for cultivation for years to come. It may take decades for Sumatra to recover from this disaster.

A few like-minded doctors of Kerala, a southern state of India, formed an independent group and, with the generous support of different Muslim organizations, went to Banda Aceh. Red Crescent, Indonesia, promised to host us. We boarded the Malaysian Airways Boeing at Bangalore airport to Kuala Lumpur on January 15 and flew to Medan, just over two weeks after the tsunami devastated the coasts of northern Sumatra. Our medical relief team, consisting of six doctors and a pharmacist, travelled 600 kilometres (370 miles) northwards from Medan, the third largest city after Jakarta and Surabaya, by road to reach Sigli. In our team we had experts in orthopedics, ENT (ear, nose and throat), pain and palliative care, public health, general medicine and dentistry.

Although Dr Basuki, the chairman of the Indonesian Red Crescent, had sent us many fax messages inviting us to join them, to our surprise we could not see anyone from Red Crescent in Medan airport. Apart from seasoned disaster-management organizations, most of the NGOs contributed substantially to the prevailing confusion.  Luckily, Mr Farook Maricar, a local philanthropist, had reached the airport with some of his friends to help us out.  He arranged a meeting with a community organization, Aceh Sepakat. In association with the Bhupati, the district civil authority, Aceh Sepakat arranged basic facilities. Our medical team decided to serve Pidie region for a couple of days and then try to proceed to Banda Aceh to join the Red Crescent.

Pidie region is a known stronghold of militants, and lack of media attention made it less attractive for the popular NGOs to function there. We got access to village primary health-care centers, which they call puskismas. The obvious presence of heavily-armed military and paramilitary forces is a striking feature of this area.  Military personnel viewed every move with suspicion, we felt: no friendly chats or smiles, only tensed facial muscles.  Whenever we tried to initiate a simple discussion on the unrest the youth shied away from the issue of separatism.  We treated around 500 patients per day. The age/ sex pattern showed a conspicuous lack of young males. The military controlled the crowds of women, old men and children with heavy machine-guns much in evidence.

We drove from Sigli to Banda Aceh along a tortuous road, which is known as “Frontier of Makkah”, through a marvelous land of hills, rivers and lush greenery. The Indonesian military’s guarded vehicles and big trucks passed by, carrying relief supplies. Oxfam, Red Cross, Mercy Malaysia, MSF…suddenly things began to take a different shape. Every five minutes a minimum of two choppers hovered overhead. Indonesian soldiers became less noticeable as we approached Banda Aceh. Mr Firman drove us to Lumbaro, where the Red Crescent has set up a field hospital. Lumbaro is eight kilometres (about five miles) away from the beach. European ‘servicemen’ are at liberty to walk not only to any prohibited area but on to the airstrip as well.  Banda Aceh is now a city virtually run by Australia and the US.

Samudra (former Sanskrit name for Sumatra) was Muslim by 1297, to judge from the earliest tombstones in the ancient cemetery at Geudong. When it was visited by the greatest of Arab travel-writers, Ibn Battuta, in 1323 it was a sophisticated sultanate with international relations around the Indian Ocean and China. Under its preferred Muslim name of Pasai it issued gold coins, sent ships to the major ports of Asia, and developed a Malay system of writing in Arabic script. Pasai was the great Southeast Asian centre of Islamic scholarship. It was a producer of silk and in the fifteenth century grew much pepper for the Chinese market.

We were taken to where the worst devastation took place. Tidal waves had taken away whatever was in their way.  The tsunami went up to six kilometres inland from the coast. I could not accept it, but felt a sense of deep shock: my nerves went numb, and my heart turned rock-hard. No business or schools run. Banda Aceh University lost over 100 faculty members. Aceh medical school does not function any more. Wherever you go the story of death and destruction prevails. Once-vibrant cities look deserted and ghostly. The stench of decaying bodies fills the air.

The cold, insensitive attitude of the Muslim governments towards the sufferings of their brethren needs special mention. Other than Malaysia and, to some extent, Pakistan, no Muslim government has shown any interest.  In future Australia, the US and Britain will use aid even more as a tool of manipulation. Efforts are already being made to sideline the government of Indonesia in providing help. There are clear indications that the US wants to make another “Afghanistan” in Aceh by providing arms to different groups. How far this weak present government of Indonesia will be able to contain these machinations remains to be seen.

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