Journal from the Ground
by Mazalan Kamis
Touring the devastated region
I spend the morning touring the worst hit area of Banda Aceh with
Saiful. I have no words to describe what I see. Everywhere I look, I see
only destruction. To be told that this was once the most populated
segment of Aceh is simply incomprehensible.
Dead trees and rubble are what
remain of what was once a bustling city.
As far as the eye can see…nothing
After nearly four months, many parts of Banda Aceh continue to remain in
ruin. But the sheer zest to get back to normalcy exhibited by the
Acehnese is evidenced everywhere. If only authorities could speed up the
reconstruction efforts, Aceh will be back on its feet in no time. Sadly,
from what I have observed thus far, the only structures that have been
constructed with sheer earnestness and at lightning speed are the army
complexes, or should I say, fortresses.
As for the victims, they have very little choice other than making do
with what they have while waiting for the promised billion dollar
assistance to trickle down to them. For the lucky ones, especially those
who are being placed in the government built barracks, they get 30 cents
a day. For the not so lucky (which in this case are the majority), they
have to settle for donated rice and canned/dried fish for many more
months ahead. Today I hear rumors that there is talk about cleaning
roadside traders from Banda Aceh as a move by the authorities to improve
the image of the city. As if there is not enough destruction already in
Makeshift kiosks sprouting almost
New settlements crop up all along
the port city.
Victims defy the authorities and set up tents on their former properties
which sometimes lie close to the edge of the sea. They are tired of the
promised assistance which is slow or never to arrive. With nowhere to
go, many feel it is better to live in tents on their ruined property,
where at least they will get noticed by the many relief agencies.
Tired of living in tents, many
survivors start building semi permanent structures on their
No one knows how many bodies remain
buried under this colossal size ship which was forced by the
tsunami to land two kilometers inland in a neighborhood in Banda
Working from the UN compound
After a tour of the destroyed city, Saiful and I decide to go to the UN
compound to continue with our work. The compound is the only place where
one can get access to wireless internet. The place also provides
extensive information about UN activities in Aceh as well as general
information about Aceh. This is the lifeline for the many local and
international non-governmental agencies.
Plenty of information about Aceh
can be accessed from the UN compound.
The only place for wireless
internet is in makeshift tents in the UN compound.
Attending Friday Congregational Prayers at Masjid Baiturrahman
The Masjid Baiturrahman is the nerve center for the people of Aceh. In
the immediate days after the tsunami, the mosque was the place where
thousands of bodies were brought to and displayed for identification by
surviving family members. Unclaimed bodies were then sent to mass graves
I meet and chat with three close friends of Saiful; Sayed, Muhyidin
(Pak Din), and Sabri. I have no courage to enquire further from these
men when I learn about their sad stories. Sayed lost his two kids and
his pregnant wife, Pak Din lost his father and a brother, while Sabri
lost his wife and a daughter. Sabri still carries the only photo album
in his possession containing the picture of his family everywhere he
I am looking at Sabri’s only
connection to his missing family, a family photo album.
Leaving the Masjid after prayers
Meeting with the villagers
ARF receives an invitation to attend the first ever meeting among the
surviving members of the Punge Jurong V village to be conducted at the
village mosque. When we arrive at the site, we are surprised to find a
large crowd gathered inside the mosque. Many women IDPs have returned
from villages surrounding Banda Aceh where they are staying with their
families and friends or in barracks. In normal circumstances, a
community gathering like this will see many children roaming around or
playing outside the mosque. However, this is not the case with this
gathering. I learn later that so few of the children from this village
survived the tsunami.
A huge turnout of the villagers in
the first meeting at the village mosque.
The master of ceremony invites me to talk to the gathering. I present a
brief introduction about ARF and its mission in Aceh. I call upon the
villagers to let our representative understand how ARF can best assist
them. I also talk about ARF’s intention of ‘adopting’ the village, which
then receives thunderous applause from the villagers.
Presenting a brief talk about ARF
to the villagers.
Only a handful of these women
attendees still have their families.
ARF donates another USD 300 to the
village for the purchase of bricks to rebuild the wall of the
Having a heart-to-heart talk with
women IDPs. A majority of these women lost their husbands,
children and their houses to the tsunami. I have to stop asking
about their fateful experiences, since I can no longer bear to
listen to the many of them.
The villagers posing with me and
the ARF banner in the background.