Aceh Diary: Commemoration

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BANDA ACEH, DECEMBER 26 2005. The chartered planes carrying foreign dignitaries and government officials began arriving at the tiny airport long before dawn, heralding one year to the day that the tsunami devastated Aceh’s coastline. The Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was scheduled to open a two-day series of commemoration events with an 8am ceremony at Ulee Lheu port –- one of the worst hit locations in Banda.

We didn’t have invitations, but went anyway. I couldn’t imagine not paying my respects after being part of this community for the last few weeks. So we decided to take our chances, hoping but not really expecting to catch much of the ceremony. Well, it turned out that only a few hundred of the 2000+ distinguished guests we understood were expected actually put in a show, and we were ushered in to the large open tent erected for the occasion without even being asked for our invitations or IDs. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we sat down about 20 feet away from the stage that was set against the backdrop of the sea and open wasteland that was once among the most densely populated areas in the city.

The ceremony began with a recitation from the Quran, followed by a speech from the acting Governor of Aceh. The President then called for a moment of silence to mark the exact time, 8:16am, when the first waves hit the shore. I looked to the scene outside – it was a perfect day, so innocuous, with blue skies and bright rays of sunshine dancing happily off the smooth surface of the water. It was nearly impossible to fathom the terror of those few short minutes one year ago which crushed the lives of the thousands of people living right where I was now sitting.

I haven’t been to many functions where I’ve witnessed grown men shed unabashed tears, but they were hardly alone in being immeasurably moved by the song performed by a gifted group of young boys orphaned by the tsunami. I had also never seen the Indonesian President speak in person before, and was impressed by not only what he said and his charisma, but also the passion with which he addressed his people; switching from English to Bahasa near the end with a heartfelt message. He thanked the international community for their support and encouraged the Acehnese people with his praise for their strength and resilience; he also emphasized the ongoing commitment to reconstruction – a thought echoed in taped messages from President Clinton and UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. The ceremony closed with a performance by a popular Acehnese singer who sang without the accompaniment of music, a stunning, raw and melancholy prayer from the heart.

We didn’t see the thousands of Banda Acehnese at Ulee Lheu we had expected to attend the commemoration ceremony. We later heard that many had gone directly to the mass grave sites in areas like Lhok Nga to pray for those who perished in the tsunami.

We later went to an exhibition set up along the waterfront at Ulee Lheu, where paintings, food, handicrafts and other items were being sold. One large painting depicting the tsunami caught my eye. It showed Banda’s main mosque prominent in the horizon, almost like a safe haven in a scene straight out of what I would imagine as hell – an angry sea of giant black roiling waves carrying with it houses, vehicles, trees, and people, while a helpless few scrambled on to rooftops trying to save themselves from what appeared to be a horrific and inevitable end. Walking quickly on, I tried to shake off the image left by the painting. Coming to Ulee Lhue today had somehow made the tragedy that took place here seem more real than it had during much of the last few weeks since I arrived in Banda.

My resolution for the new year is to follow through on this renewed sense of urgency to help, brought to the fore by my commemoration experience.

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