The tsunami in northern Sumatra

EVERYTHING CHANGED WITH THE DISASTER

Until the 2004 tsunami, Aceh was isolated. Then the aid workers came and, with them, the hope of opening up. What remains?

(17.11.) Beklemmend eng ist es im dunklen Tunnel, der in das Tsunami-Museum der Stadt Banda Aceh führt. Aus 22 Meter Höhe läuft das Wasser die Wände herunter: So hoch war die Riesenwelle, die am 26. Dezember 2004 die Küste der indonesischen Provinz Aceh überrollte. Mehr als 170.000 Menschen kamen ums Leben, rund eine halbe Million verloren ihr Zuhause.

A young man with a mango seedling. The tsunami tore families apart. For the survivors, 2005 meant starting from scratch.
The tsunami tore families apart. For the survivors, 2005 meant starting from scratch. © Lohnes
Another level of destruction. In Aceh, the tsunami raged strongest.
Another level of destruction. In Aceh, the tsunami raged strongest. © Maedje
The reconstruction promised jobs and a perspective. But in 2009 many lost their jobs again.
The reconstruction promised jobs and a perspective. But in 2009 many lost their jobs again. © Lohnes
Many people in Aceh are very religious. Some are certain that the tsunami was a punishment from God.
Many people in Aceh are very religious. Some are certain that the tsunami was a punishment from God. © Lohnes

What followed was the biggest fundraising campaign of all time: The German population alone donated 670 million Euro for the tsunami victims in all affected countries, the federal government made 500 million Euro available. The majority of which went to Aceh. 325 aid organisations streamed into the previously isolated region, in which a bloody civil war between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesian military had been taking place for almost 30 years. At the time of the disaster, the province lay under martial law, foreigners rarely had access and there were almost no civil organisations. Accordingly, it was initially difficult to coordinate the influx of foreign aid workers and international funds.

Civil and military institutions were destroyed

The tsunami did not only destroy the entire infrastructure, but also authority and military posts. After intensive mediation by the former Finnish prime minister Martti Ahtisaari, on 15th August 2005 both sides signed a peace agreement, granting the province regional autonomy and that has, to date, not been broken. “For us, the conflict ended with the tsunami. No-one paid attention any more to who had shot whom, we wanted to live on”, explains Ridwan Husin, whose village was particularly badly destroyed by the civil war.

A punishment from God?

Many residents of Aceh believe that God sent the tsunami as punishment for the long-lasting civil war. Even back in 1999, the central government in Jakarta had approved the introduction of Sharia law in the strongly Islamic province. Now the spiritual and local leaders wanted to apply Islamic law as quickly as possible. Since 2005, the drinking of alcohol, gambling and extra-marital sex have been punishable by lashing and since September 2014 homosexual acts are also punished this way. “It is not about the physical beating, rather the social humiliation of the accused”, explains the human rights activist Azriana Rambe Manalu.

Many Acehnese are disillusioned, because corruption continues under the new leadership as well. Mining and plantation agriculture are booming, but the government is barely investing anything into the economic development of ordinary people. When the last aid organisation withdrew in 2009, income disappeared in many areas: construction workers, restaurant owners and advisors lost their main sources of income. Today, very few visitors come to Aceh.

Christina Schott is a freelance journalist in Indonesia. The unabridged article can be found in the journal Welternährung 4/2014 (in German only).

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2004 tsunami
Map: coastal regions affected by the 2004 tsunami.
Coastal regions affected by the 2004 tsunami. Click on the image to enlarge it.

The tsunami caused disasters in eight countries - more than 1.7 million people became homeless.