From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Feature: Reflections on the Tsunami Disaster
"Henry Hess" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thu, 24 Mar 2005 11:08:58 -0500
By Brenda Melles
March 23, 2005 - Last week I traveled to Aceh, Indonesia to help the
Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, a Canadian NGO
(non-governmental organization), plan its tsunami reconstruction
program. It took me 10 flights to get there and back -- one for every
day that I was away from my kids.
We worked from an office at the back of a closed pharmacy. After the
basement had flooded to eye-level and the city became a morgue of
thousands of bodies, the Acehnese owners left and moved to another city.
They left their medicines behind, and the walls were still lined floor
to ceiling with small, square drawers of antibiotics and pain relievers.
No area in the world was worse hit by the tsunami than Aceh. More than
220,000 Acehnese are dead. I expected to sense the residual trauma of
people long buried. What I didn't know is that even almost three months
after the event, they are still finding more bodies - 80 on the day I
Most of us have seen those "before and after" tsunami satellite images
of Banda Aceh - the ones where the city, at first green and verdant,
turns ashen gray. I walked through the gray.
It's an area called Ulele, a mostly middle-class neighborhood whose
residents worked at the local universities, schools, shops or hospitals.
You drive in on a makeshift gravel road. What was once a thriving
neighborhood is now a flattened field of rubble. Scattered by the
roadside are "tsunami cars", their wheels ripped off and their bodies
crumpled like wrapping paper. Throughout the area, red and white
Indonesian flags are tied to small wooden poles -- a sign of respect for
the dead, and a marker that where the flag is tied many bodies are
I visited Ulele's new tourist spot. It's frequented by relief workers
and Acehnese survivors. There's no ticket booth, but there are a couple
of guys pointing people to parking spaces.
People come to see a huge barge -- an electrical power generating
station. It was built on the coast, to isolate it from the conflict
between the Indonesian military and the Acehnese separatist movement.
Now the barge sits three kilometres inland. After the tsunami it
landed, upright, in the middle of a housing area. Amazingly, the
station is still supplying power.
I met a man from Ulele who survived. The morning of the tsunami he was
home with his family. The earthquake hit. It was powerful and they
were shaken, but unhurt. About 20 minutes later, he said goodbye to his
wife, touched his daughter's hands, promised them he'd be back the next
day, and drove off to deliver some supplies.
He had just crossed the city bridge when the first wave came. He tried
to turn around, but couldn't get back. He got out of his car and swam
through the floodwaters for about a kilometre, all the while hoping that
his family had crawled onto the roof of their house and were waiting
there for help. When he finally reached his house, it was gone. He
never saw his family again.
More than Ulele and the flattened landscape of Banda Aceh, it was the
drive down the west coast that impacted me most. The road was mostly
washed away in the tsunami, but they are working hard at rebuilding it.
The first shock is the beauty. The coast is lined with rows of
mountains. They rise dramatically from the ground, steep outcroppings
of tree-covered rock. The open ocean is a sparkling inviting blue.
This has to be one of the more beautiful coastal drives in the world.
Were it not for 30 years of civil war, Aceh could rival Bali or Phuket
as a top tourist spot.
The second shock is the complete devastation. What were villages,
resorts and restaurants are completely swept away. All that remains are
the cement slab foundations. The coconut trees are ragged stumps,
ripped in half by the speed of a wave traveling 400 miles (600
kilometres) an hour. Everything else is scrubbed clean.
Even the coastline has changed. Now there's a line in the mountains,
sometimes 30 metres up, where the trees have disappeared and the rock is
exposed. Now the sparkling surf breaks on sections of the old road. I
passed a bridge with one end anchored to land and the other, hanging
over open ocean.
For the coastal survivors, life is far from normal. Most people are
still living in tented camps or temporary barracks. They are frustrated
by sitting still; anxious to restore their lands and their lives. I met
a village leader who told me, "If I had a hoe in my hand today, I would
go out and start to work."
When I first heard about the tsunami from my home in Kingston, Ontario,
I felt like most Canadians: amazed, saddened, wanting to help. I didn't
cry about it, though, until I looked into the eyes of a 10-year-old girl
who lost her mother.
I was sitting in a tent talking to some women survivors. We talked of
their need for more than one cooking pot and more high protein foods. I
listened to their restlessness, their frustration with living day after
day in the camp, and their desire to rebuild. All the while, that girl
sat looking at me, her faced outlined by a royal blue veil. When I
looked into her eyes, they were haunted.
Those satellite pictures, those newspaper snapshots -- they only give
you a sickening taste of what happened in Aceh. My task was to help
work out how to spend millions of relief dollars. But money doesn't
assuage pain, and I didn't have much more to offer that 10-year old girl
than my tears.
When survivors walk back to their old village site to try to reconnect
with their life before the disaster, they find it quite simply, gone.
Their bridge to the past empties into the sea.
Brenda Melles has worked in the field of international development for
more than a decade. She is a Canadian who has traveled extensively
overseas, and lived for four years in Malaysia and three years in
Uganda. She currently lives in Kingston, Ontario with her two young
children and works as an independent consultant and writer for various
Recently, Melles traveled to Indonesia with the Christian Reformed
World Relief Committee (CRWRC), the relief and development agency of the
Christian Reformed Church in North America. Her role was to help plan
CRWRC's reconstruction program. She will also prepare proposals for
CRWRC to access the Canadian government's promised matching funding for
the individual giving of Canadians after the tsunami.
Director of Communications
Christian Reformed Church
To learn more about the Christian Reformed Church, visit www.crcna.org
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