Five years after the tsunami: recollections from my work on ground zero in Aceh, Indonesia

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Explaining the housing program admistered by the Multi-Donor Fund to a group of residents.

(Geumala Yatim, who started working with communities in Aceh soon after the 2004 tsunami hit, is writing a book about her experiences there. This is adapted from one of its chapters).

At the time, I was at my friend Oscar’s house, getting ready to attend a Christmas party at another friend’s house. Oscar asked me to turn the TV on to CNN or BBC. “I heard there’s a big natural disaster somewhere on the tip of Sumatra. Aceh probably. Not sure,” he said. Up until we left the house, both channels were relaying non-stop reports on natural disasters in Thailand and Sri Lanka. No reports on what was happening on the tip of Sumatra thus far.

Two days later I attended an awards ceremony hosted by a women’s group called Perempuan PeKa (Women for Peace and Justice). That evening several women were awarded for the achievements in their respective fields. During a break, one of the group’s activists and a man stood before the audience and started talking about what happened in Aceh a few days earlier. The man was apparently the activist’s cousin who was recently evacuated to Jakarta. The audience fell silent in shock at what they heard. That same evening, several activists from the awards ceremony gathered for coffee to discuss an action plan for Aceh. For some reason, I felt compelled to join the discussion. It didn’t take long for us to come to an agreement on what needed to be done. The main issue we were deadlocked on was who would be the one to fly out to Aceh.

Long story short, December 30, 2004 became a “historic” day for me. I was sent to Banda Aceh with two young activist friends s from the Aceh Kita Foundation named Butet Marpaung and Ratna Bantara Munti. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami disaster, the airport in the Acehnese capital was inundated with flights transporting aid and volunteers, causing all sorts of delays and other issues. Yet oddly enough, our flight that day wasn’t delayed or forced to land in a different airport – it was smooth sailing all the way. We also managed to get a ride from the airport into the city, even though we heard stories of people being forced to walk the distance because of a lack of transportation. Another odd occurrence was running into two celebrity friends at the airport, Nurul Arifin (a former actress who is now a parliament member) and Ria Irawan (a stage and film actress). Both came with virtually nothing, except the will to help.

I remember the day of our arrival being a bright but not necessarily sunny day. My memories of the situation in Banda Aceh that day however, are far more vivid. I distinctly remember seeing a fully-decorated Christmas tree just days earlier, and comparing that to a real live tree ‘decorated’ with dead bodies and debris. Never before have I seen a bus stand upright, nose to the sky. Never have I also seen a fisherman’s boat marooned on asphalt, wedged between two buildings. In the midst of this chaos I helped set up a base camp for volunteers and coordinated their activities. I also made time to give help to the village of Ulee Lheue, where my father was born. This was ground zero of the tsunami.

Yursi, age 20, tends to cocoa seedlings at the Forsaka nursery in Jalin village, in Aceh, Indonesia. The nursery is a pilot initiative set up by Fauna and Flora International, with MDF support. It will benefit over 300 families in the area (Photo © Abbie Trayler-Smith)
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My emergency-phase stretch in Aceh lasted four months. We set up our volunteer station at office of the Aceh NGO’s Forum. I crashed on the sofa 2-3 hours a night on average. My waking hours days were spent visiting survivors in their barracks, monitoring the flow of aid, acting as focal point to visiting foreign journalists – even acting as a ‘treasurer’ of sorts, taking care of food and cigarettes for volunteers, also their plane tickets once they finish their ‘tours of duty’. I remember it all very clearly. And it’s probably best that it’s all just remembered, not relived.

After a month back in Jakarta, another “historic” moment in my life took course in July 2005 – still to do with Aceh, but this time not as a volunteer but as a consultant. A woman named Sabine Joukes contacted me, telling me about a group of donors that call themselves the Multi Donor Trust Fund for Aceh and Nias (the MDF), in which the World Bank acts as a trustee and co-chair. Sabine told me she was seeking someone that new a thing or two about communications, and she got my name through mutual friends in the advertising industry. At first I thought she was seeking my help to look for a communications person, since I’ve been asked to head-hunt on quite a number of occasions.

A week later Sabine called me again and asked if I was ready to go? It was only then that I realized that she was actually offering the job to me, even though I had already told her that I just started a new job that I was not prepared to let go of just yet. Long story short, an agreement was reached and I was hired put on a 150-day contract to be stretched over a six month period. During that period my task was to help socialize the MDF at various high schools across the province and get students to take part in a contest to design the MDF logo.

This task took me across the province, visiting schools in the towns of Meulaboh, Simeuleu, Pidie, Bireuen, Lhokseumae and of course Banda Aceh. Three winners were eventually selected by a panel of juries representing the BRR (Agency for the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Aceh and Nias) as well as civil society organizations on the MDF steering committee. The three winning logo designs were then combined to become the MDF logo as we know it.

By 2006 my contract had been extended, and Sabine and I were still figuring out the best way of communicating in Aceh and Nias. In the meantime, the first half of 2006 became one of the busiest periods of the year thanks to a steady stream of visits from ambassadors and presidents of various countries and donor agencies, not to mention as well as the countless supervision missions to the many projects that began several months earlier.

On each visit, locals would come to us with a variety of basic questions – how does the project work? Where does the money come from? From these interactions Sabine saw the need to heighten community outreach activities. By August 2006 I had officially become the community outreach officer (as they call it) for the MDF. My cell phone number was made public and from then on, I was ‘on-call’ for any public queries or complaints over on MDF projects. Since the donors under the MDF are not allowed to intervene in such situations, part of my job was to either convey these complaints to the right project people, or facilitate meetings between the disgruntled parties and the project people. How these issues are settled is ultimately up to the project teams.

Another part of my job was simply to help locals understand what was going on around them. For instance, communities in Aceh and Nias (and probably elsewhere in the country too) often did not know the difference between donor countries, NGOs, the Red Cross and the UN. And who could blame them? Nobody ever imagined that these big international organizations would be crisscrossing through their homeland, so I did my best to explain the differences in the simplest way possible. Just as I also tried my best to explain in the simplest way possible that the World Bank is indeed a bank, but does not have any ATMs or give personal loans.

In trying to explain the work of the MDF, we first designed and launched a radio talk show, followed by a lengthy article in Aceh’s largest daily newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, on how MDF projects work.

Making my cellphone number public often led to some interesting situations and exchanges. Once I was awoken from my sleep in the middle of the night by an woman who began her call by asking “Ibu, how come I haven’t received a new boat yet?” Another woman sent me several text messages explaining to me that her husband went missing during the separatist conflict, so she and her teenage children had to leave their homes and take refuge at a relative’s home in a different district. I would even get phone calls from project facilitators telling me that they hadn’t been paid in the past three months due to an administration error.

But nevertheless there are priceless rewards to my job, for instance:

There’s nothing more gratifying than taking a journalist to visit a completed project site, and discovering that many of the locals there still remembered me. And how can you turn down a village head who asks inviting you to attend his daughter’s wedding because he believes that you played a big role in helping improve the infrastructure of his village. How can you turn that down?? Priceless rewards.

December 26, 2009 marks the five year anniversary of the tsunami disaster. What memories do I still harbor of that disaster? The countless dead bodies on the roadside? The streets that remained dark and lifeless for months? The wreckage and debris here and there? I don’t see those images ever fading from my memory, even though I don’t have the photographs to prove what I saw.

One thing’s for sure: whoever visits Aceh or Nias now, five years after the fact, may not be able to picture how things were before. And I might be the right person to explain that yes, there has been progress, and there has been development. There has been rehabilitation and reconstruction in the worst affected areas, and I know that for a fact because I was there just days after the tsunami, and I was still there when the reconstruction was underway. But I may not be here anymore once the communities get fully back on their feet and carry on with their lives independently, free of assistance. 


Geumala Yatim

Communications - Aceh, Indonesia

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