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Five years after Indonesia's tsunami, Banda Aceh has bounced back Add to ...

When Wahyu first saw the wall of water coming toward his home, he thought the world was coming to an end. But now, five years on, he believes the tsunami that devastated this city was a gift from God.

His mother and younger brother were among the 170,000 people who died here that day, as was his infant niece, ripped from his arms by the force of the water. The family's small concrete home was crushed and Wahyu was carried nearly two kilometres by the waves until he grabbed hold of a mobile phone tower and clung to it for his life. The next thing he remembers, he was surrounded by "hundreds, thousands" of bodies.

But despite all that he and the region lost, Wahyu (who, like many Indonesians, has just one name) believes that the tsunami has, in fact, made Banda Aceh a better place.

"The tsunami was God's blessing to us," he says, standing atop the Apung 1, a massive barge that was carried from the harbour three kilometres inland and now sits by the rubble of his family's former home.

"Before, we were fighting [in a civil war]" explains Wahyu, who now makes his living by conducting $1 tours of the boat for curious foreigners. "Because of the tsunami, we had to stop and work together. God gave us this peace."

This sentiment is surprisingly common on the northern tip of Sumatra, ground zero for the tsunami that roared across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, killing about 170,000 people, 35,000 of whom were never found.

A psychological assessment conducted after the tsunami found the people here to be "extremely resilient," showing far fewer signs of mental or emotional trauma than researchers expected in a population that had witnessed so much horror.

However, fatalism also may play a big role. It is inherent in the brand of Islam practised in this part of the world, which has long been extremely devout and seems even more so since the great tragedy.

Those who see a divine hand in the tsunami now seek a different kind of restoration for Aceh. They want the city once known as "the veranda of Mecca" - because it was here that the religion first entered the region centuries ago - to reclaim its place as the Islamic capital of Southeast Asia.

The tour guide: His ship came in

Whatever the reason, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that, just over five years later, life here really is better.

Not only has more than $6-billion in foreign aid and reconstruction money been directed to Aceh, the disaster brought an end to the region's 30-year war between the separatist Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government.

Many of the tsunami dead were buried in two mass graves, one near the newly built airport and the other near the coast. There are a few other reminders of the day the ocean came ashore: ships like Apung-1 that were deposited inland and the occasional decapitated palm tree. Otherwise, today's Banda Aceh looks much like any other mid-sized, slightly affluent city in Southeast Asia.

Many Acehnese see signs of a divine hand in what happened. The survival of the city's 130-year-old main mosque is held up as proof of divine involvement, and Wahyu snickers that the Apung-1 landed right on the home of his richest neighbours.

"They were stingy, so this was their punishment," he says.

You could just as easily credit the flood of foreign aid workers and the 800-odd non-governmental organizations (many of them faith-based) that arrived in Aceh to launch an unprecedented relief effort. The biggest helping hand the world has ever given to a place the size of Aceh, it has transformed an impoverished, war-torn hellhole into a bustling city of 210,000 people who believe the world cares about them.

Throughout the surrounding province, about 140,000 new houses have been built, along with 1,700 schools, as well as hundreds of mosques, airports and government buildings.

"They had so much money that they were able to pay all the bribes, all the middle men, pay for all the villas and four-by-fours, pay off the mafia and still do all the reconstruction and still have some money left over," says John Penny, head of the European Union mission here.

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