We headed up to Banda Aceh to cross over to the island of Pulau Weh to do some snorkeling and maybe diving. Banda Aceh is the provincial capital of Aceh, the northern most province in Sumatra. Well known for the suffering and devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami which wiped out much of the city, Banda Aceh is recovering from the tsunami. However, this tragedy affected everyone in Banda Aceh, as much of the city was completely wiped out.
On the way to the ferry for Pulau Weh, we met a nice guy (Roni) who gave us a good price for a ride to the dock on his motorcycle sidecar (both of us plus our backpacks). The ferry for Pulau Weh leaves from Ulee Lheue, which was ‘ground zero” for the tsunami. On the way, he pointed out the tsunami devastated western portion of the city, where you can see new homes and some parcels that remain vacant. We also passed a memorial he said was for the victims. We were trying to get to the ferry before it left, but we made a mental note that it would be good to stop at the memorial on the way back.
On our return from Pulau Weh, we were greeted by hordes of taxi drivers eager for our business. Alexa spotted Roni on the side calling “Hey Jason”, and we headed through the throngs of taxi touts for his motorcycle sidecar. He remembered that we wanted to stop at the tsunami memorial. He told us his parents and all of his siblings had died in the tsunami, leaving him the only person left of his family of 10. Everyone in Banda Aceh has a tragic story to tell. The first memorial we visited had a simple layout around some devastated building shells that were not demolished and gave you a feel for how devastated the area was. Roni said his parents were (buried) here. Later, we learned on the internet that this was the site of a mass grave for over 60,000 tsunami victims and the buildings used to be a hospital. Out of necessity in the days immediately after the tsunami, the grounds became a massive grave where the dead were buried quickly in a large pit, in accordance with Islamic custom and for public health.
He also took us to another prominent tsunami site, the final resting place for an enormous ship. The ship was actually a barge, which had a power station and was moored at the harbor near Ulee Lheue. The tsunami pushed this 2,600 ton power-plant barge about five kilometers inland, and left it on top of this unfortunate neighborhood. It now sits on top of an old road, which can be seen leading up to this enormous barge, then continuing out on the other side. Since the barge is far too large to move, the power plant has been refurbished, with new power lines leading from the electric panels on the barge into the neighborhood surrounding the barge’s new “berth”. This has become a tourist attraction and testament to the power of the tsunami.
A tsunami educational park was built near the barge, and included photos of the event. There is also a display of photos of the damage. The amount of damage, debris and death shown in those photos are far beyond what people normally experience. The first quake was a 9.1+ and the aftershock was a 7.3 on the Richter scale. The tsunami reached a depth of about 45 feet here, and most of Aceh is flat and seems at or near sea level. About 130,000 people died here and the devastation was massive. We know that now, far-away in Haiti, people are having similar problems, and it is stunning to be here and to witness the permanent impacts of such a disaster. And yet we only scratched the surface of the suffering of the people who actually were here at the time.
Prior to the tsunami, the region had been subject to strife between Acehnese separatists (GAM) and the Indonesian government. During the tsunami aid efforts, GAM established itself as the most capable and de facto “government” in the region, so a peace deal that was eventually signed gave the Acehnese significant autonomy. The result is that Aceh is the only province in Indonesia permitted to institute Islamic Sharia law.
The main mosque in Aceh was not destroyed in the tsunami, while surrounding neighborhoods were. Of course, many claim divine intervention. These days, the mosque also serves as the grounds where public caning of people who violate the Sharia law occur. We dressed respectfully and took some photos of the magnificent building.
***click to enlarge photos***