Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

After the tsunami

Published: Jul 24, 2007

Journal of an Aceh volunteer

Edward Aspinall

These excerpts come from the diary Ed Aspinall kept while in Aceh after the tsunami.

4–6 January 2005

After trying for three days to get a ticket from Jakarta, I arrive in Medan at 3am, on a flight that had been scheduled for 8pm. I have made this trip many times before, but the plane has never been so full. It is overflowing with Indonesian and international relief workers and volunteers of all kinds. Sitting next to me is an orange-robed Ananda Marga team, in front are neatly dressed engineers with their vests already embossed with company logos and the slogan ‘Tim Relawan Aceh’ (Aceh Volunteer Team). At the hotel, Singaporean pilots rub shoulders with Mexican search and rescue teams, American journalists, and Japanese volunteers with huge packs.

I am travelling with a team from the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) in Jakarta. Their office was in an area that was badly hit, though we do not know just how badly. Most of the staff are accounted for, except for the director, Syarifah, a well known Acehnese lawyer whose house was located near the sea in Banda Aceh. Eventually, we locate Syarifah’s father. He is sure that his daughter and grandchildren have been killed. At around 70, he has lost 11 members of his family and is now alone. He does not know what he will do now.

The road from Medan is full with trucks and vans carrying relief supplies, volunteers, and heavy moving equipment. We pass one long convoy of three trucks and about half a dozen vans and jeeps carrying the logo of PKS, the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party, which many people say is by far the best organised of the political organisations in providing relief. Plenty of military vehicles are also on the move, and there are still checkpoints on the roads, at least at night-time. In the hotel at Lhokseumawe, we catch a glimpse on television of Colin Powell peering out of a helicopter. Suddenly Aceh is at the centre of world attention.

When we pass Lhokseumawe, signs of damage from the tsunami become obvious. In some places the military have provided tents and seem to be providing food from public kitchens. Elsewhere, makeshift shelters are made from bits and pieces of plastic hung over cords, and groups of young men are waving down passers-by with buckets, hoping for donations. There are no obvious signs of a foreign presence.

We arrive in Banda Aceh at about 9pm. We drive to the centre of town, past the Baitturahman mosque and the flattened shopping mall, and toward the market. It is a surreal scene. The roads are wet and muddy, and we pass groups of Australian and Indonesian soldiers with heavy moving equipment under glaring spotlights. This part of town is completely wrecked. There are no bodies on the streets, but it stinks. Arie, my friend who has not been back to Banda Aceh for almost two years, can’t believe what he is seeing.

7 January 2005

In the morning, we go in to the People’s Crisis Centre (PCC) where they have set up a posko (coordination post) in a row of shop-houses at Simpang Surabaya, twenty metres from a river where bodies are still being fished out every day. The PCC is running an information centre for missing people. Where the other shops in the row have pulled down their shutters, people pin up details of their missing family members: adults, children, teenagers, often accompanied by photos, either taken from ID cards or family portraits, along with appeals for them to get in touch. There are hundreds of them.

PCC’s major concern is the displaced people who have fled to the homes of friends and family in areas that were not affected. While the camps are starting to be visited by teams from the government, mobile clinics of the big international NGOs and the like, displaced people in homes are not receiving any organised assistance.

Amidst all the destruction, there are signs of activity everywhere. Almost every corner has a posko. Some of them are from Islamic organisations, with PKS the most obvious. Others are government-linked groups, like Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth), private companies, student groups from North Sumatra or further afield, or groups like Sulawesi Selatan Peduli Aceh (South Sulawesi Concerned for Aceh). International agencies are less immediately obvious on the roadsides, but they are everywhere too, with the streets busy with trucks carrying assistance, and shiny four-wheel drives carrying doctors, water experts, you name it.

The student coordinators at a refugee camp (about 1000 people) set up by the Indonesian Red Cross and students at Syiah Kuala University say that the big international agencies were fast to move, but that there has been little coordination. One day, a team from a group like World Vision will come and provide them with food, but they may be short of medicines. The next day medicines arrive, but they will run short of food. The camp relies most on Red Cross volunteers from Jakarta because most of the students were themselves victims or are busy trying to find or help their own families.

Everywhere you go you witness reunions between friends, some emotional, some restrained. Invariably, people first check up on mutual acquaintances. Sometimes news is good, but there are many terrible stories of whole families wiped out, people widowed and missing children. Then, talk usually turns to the quake and the wave itself. People talk about where they were, how they escaped, what they saw. There are stories of people fleeing in the face of enormous walls of water, with big fishing boats spinning like toys on top, cars rolling over and houses being severed from their foundations. Except in the suburbs closest to the sea, people had time to run, though many were caught as they fumbled with car keys, took wrong turns or were simply overtaken by the deluge. In some places, the water came from two directions at once.

8 January 2005

I strained my lower back somehow yesterday and am totally immobilised. Great volunteer I’ve turned out to be. Bumping around town on the backs of motorbikes is probably not going to be an option. We are staying in the house of a well-known Acehnese lawyer. It is also set up as a posko for the national family planning agency. At this point 32 of their 150 or so staff in Aceh are missing or dead. As the day passes, groups of staffers come in one by one to exchange news and to receive emergency funds. A list is being compiled to record the fate of staff members and their families.

While it is true that many of Aceh’s poor have been killed in fishing villages and run-down parts of Banda Aceh like Gampong Jawa, some of the more well-to-do parts of town were nearer to the beach. Doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and other professionals have been killed in great numbers. The universities have lost many of their teaching staff. I’m here also to find word about Isa Sulaiman, one of Aceh’s best historians, on behalf of some of his friends and colleagues overseas. No one has heard anything about him.

There was a minor aftershock today, but I did not feel it.

9 January 2005

First stop this morning is the airport, because an LBH activist needs to hitch a ride on an airforce Hercules in order to get back to Jakarta. The coming and going of US navy helicopters is a sight to behold: there must be about twenty landing or taking off, occasionally bringing in injured people on stretchers, but mostly picking up deliveries of food and water for the west coast. This is one pocket of Banda Aceh where the foreign presence is very obvious.

NGO activists are starting to get worried that the military will try to close down Aceh again. Everyone thinks that there will be a massive scrabble for reconstruction money among politically-connected businessmen and military-linked businesses. The less foreign presence there will be to monitor how the money is spent, the easier it will be to siphon funds off. Last night there was a shooting near the UN compound, at the home of the deputy police commander. Nobody believes that it was GAM (the Free Aceh Movement), which is what the security forces are suggesting.

10 January 2005

We go to look for Isa Sulaiman’s house. It’s a long way from the beach, and many of the houses in the district appear to be in one piece, although the water must have been around two stories high. There are big boats lodged in some of the houses, as well as cars and great piles of wreckage. The road isn’t properly cleared, and is deep in mud. It looks like the corpse evacuation team working on Isa’s street is pulling plenty of bodies from the wreckage.

ÙGO activists are increasingly worried that the government will move to limit foreign access. Apparently Jusuf Kalla spoke on national television, saying that foreigners are only permitted in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh.

11 January 2005

Finally able to start work today. The logistics and medical coordinators at the NGO Forum are running low on some supplies, such as women’s sanitary items, baby foods and certain medicines. Coordination appears to be equally concerning – the head of their medical team says that they sometimes visit and treat refugees who received treatment from different medical teams in preceding days. Sanitation is a big problem everywhere. One internally displaced person (IDP) says that at his camp there are no toilets and people are instead using the surrounding forests. When it rains, raw sewage runs down into the tents where people are living.

Ardi, the NGO Forum coordinator, is frustrated. The big international agencies come and visit them, and ask for data about the IDPs and their work, but that is the last they see of them. Many of the most highly skilled local NGO workers are being recruited by the big internationals, who are able to offer high wages, and the Forum is starting to run short on volunteers with good local knowledge and skills. At the same time, prices for transport and building rentals are sky-rocketing. Houses have gone up from Rp 12 million (A$ 1700) a year to ten million rupiah (A$ 1400) a month (later I heard that some of the international agencies are paying a million rupiah (A$ 140) a day!). A dual economy is developing.

The internationals are getting more worried about the potential for the government to restrict access, though they won’t say it openly. Apparently, the government has said that they will be given access to only 12 of the 24 camps where the government intends to relocate the refugees. Similar fears are expressed at a UN coordination meeting I attend. The meeting room is packed, but very few of those present are Indonesians. It seems like a bit of a cowboy culture, lots of backslapping and bravado, but I am also surprised by some aspects of the meeting. Some of them don’t seem to have much knowledge about the political background and security situation. Some think GAM is responsible for the attack on the deputy police commander, even though the Indonesian authorities themselves were quoted in the local newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, today as saying that it was an Indonesian soldier who was stressed.

12 January 2005

I spend most of the day at the NGO Forum. We are able to get a 1000-person medical clinic kit from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is great because the doctors organising through the Forum are running out of supplies. They are sending out teams to accompany logistics deliveries to about 40 camps, and are treating about 200 people a day. Once the system for camp coordination is better established, they plan to set up permanent clinics in camps. At that point, we may make a request to WHO for more complete supplies.

Meanwhile, some of the NGO activists are setting up a civil society task force to prepare their own views on the reconstruction process. They worry that if they don’t act fast the government and international agencies will control the process without meaningful input from the population. There will be a meeting tomorrow to discuss this. They are also increasingly concerned that Aceh will be closed down again. The president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is reported in Serambi as saying that foreign military and volunteers will have to leave by the end of March. The local NGOs feel that democratic space will close down again if this happens, so they want to move fast.There are more aftershocks during the night.

14 January 2003

I volunteer as an interpreter at one of the hospitals where teams of foreign doctors are working. There is an Estonian and a Japanese team in the emergency room at the front, and a large group of Australians performing operations and doing the ward rounds. Most of their patients are very grateful to get good medical care, but are frustrated at the inability to communicate with the doctors. One man in his seventies is lying in bed with a foot wound and a terrible cough. I speak to his son, who had managed to tear open the roof of his house, pulling his father through it. He also saved his mother, but she died the next day. His wife and two daughters disappeared. He didn’t understand why he had been spared.

Edward Aspinall (edward.aspinall@arts.usyd.edu.au) teaches at the University of Sydney and is chairperson of the IRIP Board.

Inside Indonesia 82: Apr-Jun 2005

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