Journal from the Ground
by Saiful Mahdi
6:35am. We were taking turns using the only bathroom in the house.
Twenty three of us, half are children, and we had to be patient having
baths one after the other. The hosts did whatever they could to show
their hospitality. They let us take showers first, served morning coffee
for the ones who were waiting to use the bathroom, entertained all the
guests with light conversation. One of the blessings in disguise: the
disaster has made us closer to one another. In-laws in Aceh culture
usually maintain a certain distance and aren’t very close. Before, I
just met my in-laws occasionally with a very formal conversation. Now we
are enjoying morning coffee while chatting about everybody’s experiences
7:50am. One of my surviving cousins who called last night came to meet
us. He survived the wave by climbing a big tree near Simpang Lima of
Banda Aceh. He told us how more than fifteen people climbed each tree
along the road side passed by the wave. How some people in the water
were screaming for help, but no body in the trees could help because the
wave was so strong and horrifying. Some even lost their loved ones from
their own arms.
8:20am. We planned to take our sister and family to Medan and then
Jakarta so they can stay at my brother’s place for a while. Kamaruddin,
my brother-in-law, however, had to report to his office, Provincial
Planning Board (Bappeda) where he has been working. The office had
summoned all its employees to report their whereabouts. My
brother-in-law and I rode his brother’s motorbike to Banda Aceh’s
‘downtown’. I asked him to drop me at PCC and he continued to his
office. My brother, my sister, and her family stayed home. The plan is
that whenever Kamar is done with reporting to his office, I will send
the rented minibus to pick them up and we will leave for Sigli and then
Medan. Meanwhile I plan to do some things at PCC. I already asked a
friend in Medan to book plane tickets for seven persons from Medan to
Jakarta, a very difficult task as the airport is so crowded.
Around 12:30pm. I do not know what took my brother-in-law so long at his
office. Contrary to our plan to leave early in the morning so we can
reach Medan before midnight that day, we left Banda Aceh at about
12:15pm. We stopped in Indrapuri at 1:20pm to have lunch and offer noon
prayers. Along the way from Banda Aceh to Indrapuri we saw many people
were washing their salvaged clothes, furniture, rugs, chairs, tables,
etc along a stream near a vast stretch of paddy fields.
Clothes were washed and dried along a water stream (part of the
irrigation system) next to paddy fields on the outskirts of
Banda Aceh. People were desperately trying to save whatever
possible from their residences.
Along the way from Banda Aceh to
Seulimuem in Aceh Besar, paddy fields were like a green carpet covering
the fertile land of Aceh. Seeing this place, it was very hard to believe
that the destroyed city of Banda Aceh lay about 8 miles to the west. It
is paddy growing season.
The green and scenic views not only told visitors how beautiful Banda
Aceh and surrounding areas were before the tsunami, but also
strengthened Acehnese hearts that there are still many hopes to explore
in the future. For sure, that is what the land was telling me, at least.
Around 4:10pm, we reached Dayah Barö (aka Köngköng) in Pidie district, a
village that I’ve missed so much. I had not been able to visit the
village for more than five years due to the intense conflict between the
Indonesian military and the Free Aceh Movement. Last summer, when I was
back in Aceh, I was almost able to visit this original village of my
mother and late father, but the conflict suddenly intensified around the
area. Right away, out of concern, all my family members stopped me from
going there. Now, the tsunami disaster has opened access again for many
people who miss their inland, home villages. What a time to revisit your
A traditional Aceh house (Rumöh Aceh)
belongs to my missing grandmother (mother of my mother) in Gampöng Arëe,
Pidie. My grandmother moved to her house in Kampung Jawa, Banda Aceh,
one of the worst hit areas by the tsunami. I spent at least my first six
years of life around this house and sometimes visited the village before
the Aceh conflict intensified sporadically during 1999 to 2004. During
the intensified conflict period, I was not able to go back to this
memorable village of ours. Now I am there to see evacuated family
members and on my way to evacuate my surviving sister and her family to
5:20pm. After a bath with fresh water from our neighbor’s well, my
brother and I visited our uncle, a brother of my late father. The uncle
had been living in the village, but three of his daughters, i.e. my
cousins, had been living near Lhok Nga, at the south of Banda Aceh. We
stopped to say hello and find out personally our cousins well-being.
Thank God, my three cousins and the family of one of them were all safe.
Her house, however, was destroyed and they just barely escaped the wave.
One of my cousins, Khairun, 22, survived
the tsunami by walking through water that came up to her neck, fleeing
to the hill, and moving by a truck to higher land in Mata Ie. She is
holding one of her surviving nephews.
5:40pm. We did not visit for long with each of our relatives because we
wanted to leave the village after dusk. Circling our small village, we
met with old friends and many relatives. We stopped here and there just
to say hello and exchange information. Many of them were still repeating
“rumors” that somebody might have seen my missing sister’s husband. Some
even said they’d heard that our missing sister was also seen somewhere
by somebody. We told them that we had been to every place mentioned in
the rumors, but did not find any further valuable information to advance
our search for our missing siblings. Should we continue to hope for
their safety? Or was it time to let go?
6:25pm. We were at our other grandmother’s house (mother of our father).
She had been asking about us for years as we had never been back home to
visit her during the war time. She is almost 90 years old and physically
very weak. But she still recognized us and was kissing us all over with
words of blessing.
My other grandmother, my aunt and her
sons and daughter. All my cousins look so much taller and bigger than
the last time I met them in 1999.
Around dusk (6:55pm). When we return to our missing-grandmother’s house,
many relatives of ours are waiting for us. They had prepared an ‘adat’
ceremony (customary practice) for my sister and her family who survived
the disaster. We call it ‘peusijuek’, literally meaning ‘to cool down’.
In the ceremony, older members of the family and relatives say their
Islamic prayers while bursting paddy seeds, rice, and perfumed water
with garden leaves all over the one(s) who are having peusijuek done for
them. The practice is an obvious a remnant from the Hindu influence in
Aceh. Some people object to these kinds of practices, but others
consider it purely traditional practices combined with Islamic prayers,
the religion all Acehnese embrace.
One of my aunts, who lost two daughters,
three grandchildren, and a son-in-law, is doing ‘peusijuek’ on my sister
and her family. Although she was still in mourning, my aunt would not
let a chance pass to share her prayers with our surviving family
Our village was more crowded than ever. Many of its members who worked
in Banda Aceh were back seeking refuge as their shops and houses were
all destroyed. At least 50 households in our village were affected by
the tsunami. We also saw that many other villages along our way had been
more crowded. Local farmers’ markets have been packed with IDPs from
Banda Aceh (two hours driving away from our village). I was told that
all the survivors from our village had undergone the ‘peusijuek’
ceremony. This is a symbol of prayers for safety and to ceremoniously be
separated from the bad experiences caused by the tsunami.
We left Dayah Barö at around 8pm. The driver rushed us to leave right
away as he was worried that if we were delayed longer by meeting
everybody we know in the village, we would pass an “international zone”
at a dangerous time after midnight on our way to Medan in North Simatera.
Like I mentioned in my previous journal, the drivers in Aceh know when
to pass which place along the state road in Aceh to avoid being “in the
wrong place at the wrong time”.
In spite of the rush, I insist that we stop by my uncle’s place again in
Glumpang Minyeuk, still in Pidie district. I did not see all my cousins
the late night when we first arrived there from Medan. Besides, I wanted
to drop some supplies we got in Banda Aceh as we had dropped in Dayah
Baro for the affected villagers. The driver became more anxious as we
were still in Pidie by around 9pm. But hey…I rented the car for a
purpose, Man! I told the driver that we could stop somewhere along the
way to Medan to avoid dangerous areas at dangerous time of the night.
My uncle and his family at his
mother-in-law’s house in Glumpang Minyeuk . He was the care-taker of our
extended family. But he was in a terrible traffic accident in October,
before the tsunami, making him incapacitated during the difficult time.
One relative told me that he wept on his mother’s shoulder, feeling
helpless because of his present condition. But he never showed his
sadness in front of me. I know uncle, if you were fine, I might not even
have to come back from the States! He is every of his nieces’ and
nephews’ hero! His son, Zaki, middle with white shirt, was under the
wave and was saved by miraculous hands. His wife was walking around
their destroyed home right after the tsunami trying to find her father
who was swept away by the tsunami. Later on, her father was found dead.
9:20pm. We left Glumpang Minyeuk to continue on our way to Medan.
It was good that my surviving twin nephews were not as cranky and my
surviving niece slept along the way until Lhok Nibong in East Aceh, a
couple hours after midnight. The driver stopped the minibus here,
apparently to get word from inbound drivers from Medan about the
situation along the way. Yes, this is one of the smart strategies
drivers in Aceh have learned during the war-- stopping here and there to
listen and get info. Of course no one wants to get trapped in the middle
of a gun fight!