Our story from the Indian Ocean Tsunami
By Rahmadhani Sulaiman

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

RahmadhaniMy name is Rahmadhani, aged 44. Our story starts when my family and I were enjoying the sunshine together on a beautiful Sunday morning in December 2004 in a hilly area of Banda Aceh, Indonesia’s Aceh Province. Everyone was basically enjoying the holiday together. We couldn’t expect a disaster.

At around 8:00 am people started running, screaming, “Water come! Water come!” We had no idea what they  meant. We were completely shocked and started running even though we couldn’t see anything horrible or even water. Many locals rushed to the higher elevation of the hills. From here we could see the water.

Shortly afterwards, two metres of water swamped our house and almost everything we had. From afar we could see something was very wrong with the sea, though at the time we didn’t realize it was a tsunami. After a while people slowly came down from the mountains, then we saw dead bodies and debris everywhere. I will never forget people screaming, crying and running without clear direction.

It was a dreadful situation, and everyone was under so much pressure. Many innocent people like children, women and old people became victims. Rumors spread that entire islands were wiped out. There was no power, no real information and we got so isolated by the mounds of debris and dead bodies. Everything was quiet except for crying. Life suddenly became so empty and frustrating. Due to our house being flooded, I, my family and some others stayed together at a neighbor’s home in the same area. His house building was a little bit higher and safe from the flood.

I and some of my neighbors were encouraged to relocate the dead bodies to safe places to be buried later. Frankly speaking, I had no idea what made me so courageous to deal with the bodies. It was so frightening for me. I was such a coward dealing with that case. But I was quite aware that this was a very difficult and dramatic situation. On one hand, in these desperate circumstances, my family, my wife Neneng and my two sons, six-year-old Naufal and three-year-old Farhan, were also in need of my extra attention for their safety and comfort. On the other hand, I was right in the real challenge of humanity, with the dead bodies extremely in need of my sincere assistance. They were my people and I needed to help them out. It also occurred to me that what I was doing was a part of “karma”. I believe the others would be doing the same locating and assisting my family members who might also be in the tragic situation. However, this had become the most difficult time in our life.

During the ensuing days, sanitation became very bad and contaminated. Everyone was haunted with the image of devastating tsunami. The aftershocks gradually occurred even though they were not as powerful as before. But we were all on alert in case something bad happened again. We could only try to survive and try to depend on one another. We had a little remaining food, but when it was finished we had no more. People were searching for food and there was very high competition – as lots of demand with supply very limited.

After the third day, I tried to seek my family members in Banda Aceh, so I borrowed my friend’s motorcycle. On our way, I myself kept thinking and questioning whether or not they were safe. If they were not, where their bodies were. And if they were safe, where to meet them as everyone desperately escaped.

I and my wife and sons clearly saw thousands of tragically dead bodies along the streets on the way to the city. Everywhere was horrible and heartbreaking. They were not prepared for the sight of so many dead bodies. Not to mention the smell. Things that were supposed to be in the sea were in the street. We couldn’t believe it when we saw ships in the roofs of houses and in hotel car parks.

Fortunately after a long time of seeking, we thanked Almighty God, who has supreme might and power over all things, when we found our family members stranded but safe. It was such an emotional, important meeting. Everyone was thinking of their own family members’ safety.

Life was unhealthy and hard, so we decided to leave our home because things were getting unbearable and miserable. So we moved to a friend’s house in Lambaro, approximately 15 kilometeres away from our home, for a couple of days, though there it was the same situation. We then went to Medan, in the neighbouring province, to our brother’s house. Even though life in Medan was better, our thoughts and prayers remained in Aceh, our hometown, and those who lost everything or dead during the tragedy.

The unprecedented earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.2, followed by the deadly tsunami, had rocked Aceh. The great loss of life and tremendous destruction were tragic and threw the economy of Aceh into jeopardy with massive devastation of physical capital and human resources. To return to a better condition for many aspects of life in Aceh after the tragedy, a comprehensive reconstruction programme by strongly engaged state and local governments, communities, donor countries and NGOs was prioritized. It was carried out by establishing an implementing agency as known as the Agency for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (BRR) for Aceh and Nias. The BRR, financially supported by donor countries and international institutions, played a very important and useful role in managing the recovery in Aceh.

The disaster not only resulted in unprecedented global solidarity and sympathy in order to ease the sufferings of impacted communities through large scale humanitarian aid. It also paved the way to end the armed political conflict between the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, and the Indonesian Forces that had taken a long period and a greater number of casualties since 1976. The disaster proved to be a “blessing in disguise” which transformed the tragedy into an opportunity for the Acehnese to lead a better life in peace.

To sum up, past disaster should not leave things as they were. They should be an important lesson for everyone. As we are now living in areas of shifting tectonic plates — the “Ring of Fire” — which are constantly prone to disaster threats, living in harmony with hazards and better understanding disaster characteristics is essential in minimizing harmful impacts by building communities’ preparedness. Conducting media and school campaigns, disseminations, disaster drills and community discussions are important. Sharing live stories or lessons learnt  from past disaster experiences among communities, through projects such as TeLL-Net, is also crucial. Always remembering the impacts of  Indian Ocean Tsunami is the key for disaster risk reduction efforts and future community resilience.

Rahmadhani Sulaiman is Tourism Marketing Director, Aceh Tourism Agency, Aceh Government, Indonesia. He is also a Taskforce Team Member at the Aceh Tsunami Museum  of which he was director in 2011-2013. He is also part of the “TeLL-Net” network, based in Japan, which encourages people to tell stories and relate lessons learned from past disasters. You can learn more at http://www.tell-net.jp/