Aceh Diary: First impressions

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The drive from the airport to the city of Banda Aceh is a picturesque one. It is only once you near the city center marked by the main mosque that signs of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami become apparent, among them the mangled metal frames of bridges, several crumbling buildings –some of them popular hotels once upon a time – and large gaping holes in the concrete base of a lone massive water tower which once supplied much of the city. This is also where the office for IFC’s newly launched Private Enterprise Partnership (PEP) for Aceh & Nias is located, about 1.2 miles from the coastline.

My first sight of the tsunami torn areas was a numbing experience – much of the landscape leading up to the water looked like a warzone. I myself didn’t have much of a basis for comparison, but my colleague Vicki Peterson, Program Coordinator for PEP Aceh/Nias, had worked with the World Bank in Bosnia immediately after the war, and said there were many similarities. The cleanup effort in the last several months had been massive and very effective it appeared, as much of the debris had been cleared. But still stretching out all around were hundreds of ruins of what had once been homes, shops, and restaurants. The words “December 26, 2004 Sunday morning call – everybody lost” were inscribed on the side of the crumbling shell of one house while another read “We will all die.”

For me, the most horrific sight was the scores of buildings where only the floors had been left behind to testify to their existence – in some cases entire rooms of the colorful floor tiles gracing most Acehnese houses were left intact, rimmed by the ripped and mangled metal foundations, flattened against the ground by the force of the water. The occasional cracked and rotting fishing boat also dotted the landscape, mired in beds of mud and shallow beds of standing water.

We followed the sad winding road to the water’s edge, witnessing the enormity of what had happened here on that fateful day less than a year ago and trying to imagine how it must have looked before that. Even the destruction surrounding us couldn’t fully mar the stark beauty of Aceh’s coastline with its green volcanic peaks ringed by puffy white clouds lining one side of the horizon, and clear waters of the ocean the other, with incredibly blue skies above. Another moving sight greeted us by the water’s edge: a few steps from the tents still sheltering many tsunami victims were many families and young people walking on the beach or gathered around their cars and motorbikes; one budding entrepreneur had even set up an instant photo business out of his car. Everyone was just hanging out, laughing, relaxing, and enjoying the beautiful weather, seemingly peaceful and happy amid surroundings that we had thought would be a crippling reminder to them of all they’d lost.

Since arriving in Banda Aceh I’ve been completely awed and humbled by the resilience of these amiable Acehese people – after living through over 30 years of conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian authorities, and then facing the utter devastation wreaked by a tsunami the likes of which had never before been recorded in their history, they still persevered. Everywhere I went, people were going about their daily business with a smile amid the destruction, trying to put their lives back together. To me, this had to be the best sign I’d seen of hope and recovery, something that we at the IFC would be working very hard to strengthen.

From the beach we went to see one of Banda’s newer landmarks, one that left me stunned. There, in the heart of the city, less than half a mile from our office, standing tall in the middle of what seemed to be a quiet residential neighborhood of relatively undamaged houses, was a three-story ship! And atop the ship were lots of people, including a number of excited children, with many more crowded by the hull waiting to climb aboard, reminding me of a queue to get on a popular ride at a theme park. Vicki and I joined the line at the bottom of the ladder leading up to the ship’s deck, eventually making our way up, then climbing another three sets of iron stairs to a small deck serving as the highest vantage point for observers looking out over the surrounding lands and in the distance, the sea. With all the buildings around you couldn’t see much of the damage around the beach, but this was undoubtedly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had, standing on a ship’s deck nearly two miles inland set in a midst of an ordinary middle-income neighborhood. Amazingly, the ship was still serving its original purpose of generating power, as several of the surrounding houses had hooked their power lines up to it.

There were many things about Banda Aceh that reminded me of provincial towns I had visited in my homeland of Bangladesh, including the one which held my family’s roots, but it was scenes like this that set Banda apart firmly from any other place in the world.

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