Minutes after feeling the earthquake Dec. 26, Ibu Tetty was in her house in the small village of Desa Nusa, about 10 kilometers from the coast in Indonesia’s Aceh province.
Minutes after feeling the earthquake Dec. 26,
Ibu Tetty was in her house in the small village
of Desa Nusa, about 10 kilometers from the coast in Indonesia’s Aceh province.
She was giving thanks that her home was still
standing. “But then, I saw the people running up the hill,” she says,
pointing at the nearby slope rising.
“‘Why are you running?’ I asked them. “They were
screaming, ‘Water! Water! Run!’ There was no time to get anything from
Frightened villagers climbed on top of homes at the
top of the hill. “When the water came, it was
rolling and rolling,” Tetty recalls, spinning her hands frantically.
“‘Oh, dear God!’ I was crying. People were screaming and crying,
‘Forgive us, God! Have mercy on us, God!’”
Days later, with tears in her eyes, she looks to the
ocean, voicing thanks that her family all are still alive.
The view from the ridge that saved Tetty’s life –
and the lives of her husband and six children – never will be the same.
Framed by low mountains in the distance, the vista looking to the sea
is one of complete desolation.
Similar scenes greet aid workers arriving in Banda
Aceh, the devastated provincial capital. Once a city of more than
200,000, an accurate count of the dead there never may be known. In the
wreckage of what was once a bustling port city, people walk through
rubble in stunned silence. Mixed into the debris are hundreds of bodies
that never may be recovered. There simply are not enough people to dig
out the remains.
“It’s like a huge fist first smashed down hard on
the whole area, and then a huge hand stirred it all up,” one aid worker
Throughout the city, huge buses, trucks and boats lie mangled and
tossed about like toys. Shattered fishing boats lie in obscure resting
places – atop bridges, along streets nowhere near water.
More than three weeks have passed since the Dec. 26
earthquake shook this city on the northern tip of Sumatra. However, the
testament of its force remains – toppled minarets once reaching proudly
to the sky, buildings collapsed on their foundations, deep cracks
opened in the earth. But it was the ocean off the once-beautiful
Sumatran coastline that destroyed the city – and still strikes fear in
those who lived through the tsunami.
Like many survivors, Mr. Yusmanto escaped death only
because he works outside Aceh. He says he does not understand why his
house was not leveled in the tsunami. Still, having a frame of a house
left does not make him lucky. Everyone else in his family is dead.
“Whatever they say the death toll is, in reality it
is higher,” he says, sweeping an arm out to the rubble and suggesting
as many as 30,000 died in the nearby area.
Stacks of corpses enclosed in body bags line the
road near his home. However, Yusmanto notes that many bodies recovered
are pulled out by family members. But with entire families dead, “most
bodies will stay here, because there is no one else to do it,” he says.
All along the western coast of Aceh province,
reports on the devastation continue to broaden the extent of the
damage. For instance, six hours south of Banda Aceh, the coastal town
of Meulaboh – population 40,000 – has few survivors, early observers
“Between Meulaboh and Banda Aceh are many, many
smaller … fishing villages and towns,” a Baptist worker assessing the
needs in Aceh says. “If Banda Aceh and Meulaboh are that completely
destroyed, there’s no doubt everything in between is also gone.”
Conservative estimates say half the population of the city of Banda Aceh has been killed.
“After what we’ve seen, that really seems to be
conservative,” the Baptist worker says. “But it’s not just here. It
keeps going. It’s everywhere. The devastation doesn’t stop. I can’t
imagine how long it would be before anyone will feel good about
settling back in some of these places. They will, but it will always be
with the fear of more tsunamis.”
As people around the world continue to be inundated
with images of the destruction, it is time to shift focus, says Pat
Julian (not his real name), who coordinates Southern Baptist disaster
relief in Asia.
“We need to get past the death toll and get focused
on the living – because that’s where our ministry is going to be,”
Reconstruction could take years in Aceh, the area
hit hardest by the tsunami, observers note. As volunteers begin to
arrive, Julian says he believes selfless acts of service will make the
“We need doctors and nurses and people with specific
fields of expertise,” he says. “But we need a lot more people who will
do dirty work. It will be harder than you can imagine. There are so
many needs – giving food and water to other volunteers, setting up
water filtration systems, carrying sacks of rice, digging out debris
and bagging badly-decomposed corpses.”
Relief and aid delivered with humility and cultural sensitivity will have major impact, another worker says.
“We’ve got an opportunity to reshape the people’s
perception of Christianity,” he says. “They’ve got us categorized in
just one box (together with all Westerners). … We can reshape that.”