THE GREAT WAVE: 2004 TSUNAMI VICTIMS’ TESTIMONIES

On that tragic morning of December 26, 2004, an immense earthquake shook the depths of the Indian Ocean 160 kilometers off the coast of Aceh, followed by a giant wave that killed nearly two hundred and thirty thousand lives in the course of a few hours. It destroyed the homes of millions of people, and consequently, caused one of the greates humanitarian crises in modern history. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.1 on the Ritcher scale, occurred at 00:58 UTC (7:57 local time), was the second largest earthquake in records, surpassed only by Chile in May 1960.

This very strong earthquake had as its epicenter the northwest coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, just 30 kilometers deep, releasing an energy 1500 times greater than the atomic bomb of Hiroshima. It was characterized not only by its high magnitude, but also by its long duration, lasting around nine minutes.

The seismic movement was felt with great intensity in Sumatra, demolishing numerous buildings in the area, especially in the northern region of Aceh, which at that time was immersed in a separatist movement that lasted from 1976 to 2005. The leaders of the separatist movement Free Aceh Movement and the central government of Indonesia signed the peace, leaving behind a conflict that had resulted in more than 15,000 deaths to date.

Although this earthquake caused a significant loss of human lives and considerable material damage in the populations near the epicenter, the worst and deadliest part was yet to come; this time in the form of a giant wave, known as a tsunami, which reached thirty meters in some areas, moving at speeds of up to 800 km/h in certain sections of its route. It reached the northern shores of Sumatra closest to the epicenter just 20 minutes after the quake.

Tip of Sumatra Island, one of the most affected areas (Photo: January 2020)

This tsunami was the deadliest natural disaster of its kind in history, affecting 14 countries with a coastline in the Indian Ocean. The four most affected nations were Indonesia, with 167,799 deaths; followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

This photography documentary focuses on the locals of Banda Aceh, undoubtedly the city most punished. In a country like Indonesia, at the beginning of the 21st century, where there were no tsunami warning systems, the population was not educated about the risks and consequences that an earthquake in the middle of the ocean could bring. The locals in Banda Aceh were in a city built on a flat terrain, with no mountains of hills to flee to, and no tall buildings with a structure strong and stable enough to withstand the shock of waves of this size.

After being shaken by such a strong earthquake, the inhabitants of the city went out of the buildings for fear that the structures that had not yet collapsed could fall at any moment. In an scenario of chaos, the inhabitants reacted by helping each other selflessly, gathering themselves from the shock. What no one knew was that, while those 20 minutes of absolute disaster passed, a wave was traveling at a high speed towards them. It was minutes before a great wall of water washed away everything, when the sea began to recede, leaving plenty of fish stuck on the bottom which just moments before was covered by ocean water.

The residents whose houses were on the beachfront, including many children, rushed to catch the all those fish that were on the wet sand, unconsciously walking towards their death, ignoring what moments later was about to come. Shortly after, in the distance of the horizon, already close to the coastal strip, a wall of water that was getting bigger and bigger was moving at a speed of 100 km/h. People started yelling “Water! Water! The water is coming!” They began to flee in terror, but the tsunami was too fast. Furthermore, the absence of high ground to protect oneself made the mortality rate so high in this city of northern Sumatra.

There were a total of three waves, the second being the largest of all with a height of more than 15 meters, or as the survivors of Banda Aceh described: “a wall of black water as high as a coconut tree.” The tsunami washed away all the buildings and houses closest to the coast, penetrating kilometers inland, dragging ships of up to 2,600 tons three kilometers from the port, leaving an apocalyptic scene of death and destruction. The water was armed with tons of metal, glass, bricks, cement and wood, which made it even more lethal.

PLTD-Apung 1, a 2600-ton ship dragged miles inland. Currently still on the same site serving as a tourist attraction and reminder of the strength of the tsunami (Photo: January 2020)

Among the most affected neighborhoods were those near the port, where 80% of its inhabitants died. Something as fundamental to life as water, completely wiped out family units in these areas, killing all members of many households. Those 20 minutes that elapsed after the earthquake would be the last moments of life for 23% of the total population of Banda Aceh, a city with more than 240,000 people. Among the huge death toll, there were many children, 30% having perished, as well as people over 60 years of age, dying around 50% of them. On top of that, the fact that many people were injured by the previous tsunami made fleeing very difficult.

Neighborhood near the harbor of Banda Aceh, one of the most affected areas (Photo: January 2020)
Children play on a small boat that was also dragged inland by the tsunami (Photo: August 2018)
View of Banda Aceh with a small boat carried by the tsunami in 2004 (Photo: August 2018)

SALMI

Currently Salmi works in the house-museum that commemorates the victims of the tsunami in the neighborhood where it is located. What makes this place very special is the fact that at the top of the building there is a ship dragged by the wave that was trapped on the roof the day of the tsunami

Gonzalo Bendito: What place is this where we are?

Salmi: It is a house converted into a museum after the tsunami. It belonged to a well-off family of six. The father used to work for an oil company in the city of Medan and the mother was an English teacher. Together they had four children. The earthquake happened on a Sunday, and since the mother did not have to work during that day, she was at the market doing some shopping. She ran here to make sure her four children, who were alone in the house, were safe. Fortunately, they all survived the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

The building materials were strong enough to survive the big waves. On the upper part of the house there is a fishing boat that was carried by the waves that day, which got stuck on the roof, saving the lives of 59 people. It was a fishing boat that at the time of the tsunami was being repaired on the bank of the Aceh River, one kilometer from here. When people saw the big wave coming from Shafala beach, they all screamed and ran, looking for an elevated position to survive.

This house-museum serves the locals and tourists as a reminder of the city´s recent history (Photo: February 2020)

Gonzalo Bendito: How much time passed between the earthquake and the tsunami?

Salmi: If I am not mistaken, the earthquake occurred at 8:15 in the morning and lasted from eight to ten minutes. Twenty minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami arrived. The water receded, many fish were trapped on the sand, so people went to collect them without knowing that the tsunami was approaching. When the wave came, which was about 15 meters high, everyone started running and some of them climbed to the top of this house to save their lives. Moments later, the wave hit the house, bringing the boat with it.
At first, the people on the roof of the house thought that the ship was coming to save them, but in reality, it was just being carried by the wave. There was no one on the ship except for boat keeper. When it got stuck on the roof, 59 people jumped on it.

Gonzalo Bendito: How much percentage of people from this neighborhood died?

Salmi: Before the tsunami, there were 6000 people in this area. After the tsunami, 4,500 people died, including my mother, my two young sisters, my grandparents, and other relatives from another village who came to Banda Aceh. The reason why they came to Banda Aceh and got together was because my grandparents wanted to celebrate Hajj.

Gonzalo Bendito: What is Hajj?

Salmi: I don´t know how to explain it. You know, they wanted to go to Mecca. Do you know Mecca in Saudi Arabia? My grandparents wanted to go to Mecca on Monday, but the tsunami happened on Sunday. Their bodies could not be found, none of the bodies of my relatives were ever found.

Gonzalo Bendito: It is a very moving story. Could you tell me more about it?

Salmi: In Islamic culture, if we can save money, we make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in our lifetime. My grandparents had planned to do it for al ong time, even before I was born, but they died a day before their trip to Mecca. It was very sad. They ran their own business, selling fish and crabs. The last time I saw them was the Thursday before the tsunami. I was studying at a boarding school in Aceh Besar, far from here in the mountains. When I was in the bedroom, I felt the earthquake, it was very strong. When I heard about the tsunami in Banda Aceh, I thought “Oh My God, I just came come and no this happened!”

My mother and sisters also died. I was fourteen years old. One of my sisters was nine, and the other one was still in kindergarten, so she was a very little child. They were all together with my grandparents and other relatives in the house, which was only twenty meters away from the beach. My home was totally destroyed, there was nothing left. My father, who was selling fish at the time, was the only one who survived. The wave hit him and he was covered by the water, but he managed to save his life climbing on the roof of someone’s house.

Gonzalo Bendito: How did you react when you found out about the tsunami? Did you see it on TV or did someone tell you?

Salmi: Since there was no TV in my bedroom, I found out from my teacher, who told me that there was nothing left in Banda Aceh and that everyone died.

I was home two days before the tsunami. We had a party before my grandparents went to Mecca. It is a kind of Islamic tradition in which family, friends and neighbors ask forgiveness for miskates made in the past so those who visit Mecca can bring that message to of repentance to Allah.

Gonzalo Bendito: You lost so many members of your family. How did your religion help you overcome this disaster?

Salmi: This is a God-created disaster, and we will all die one day anyway. For me, apart from the tragedy, we also had a positive impact in Banda Aceh. We could not live in peace because we were immersed in a civil war, because the Aceh province wanted to separate from Indonesia and become an independent country. After the tsunami, many people came to Aceh to help and the conflict ended. I have confidence in God and that he made this disaster happen because we were maybe making mistakes. They introduced Sharia Law. Perhaps before the tsunami we never realized that we were making mistakes and this helped us to become better people. I don’t know, this is my opinion, but maybe other people think differently.

JUBAEDAH

Jubaedah was ony thirty years old when a giant 15-meter wave wiped out everything she had in a a few minutes; her home, her livelihood, and worst of all, her family. She lived next to the port, where it first hit. Fortunately, and thanks to her resilience, she has been able to rebuild her life, she remarried again, becoming the mother of another four children.

“My name is Jubaedah, I was born on June 17, 1974. Moments before the tsunami, I was at home, very close to the port where the wave was greatest. In front of my house, there were some shops that belonged to my brother-in-law. When the earthquake struck, we went outside the house onto the street. We couldn’t go back in because we were afraid that the building would collapse. Fifteen minutes after, the earthquake stopped. We thought about what we should do next, what had happened moments before, and whether or not we should go to safety.

My brother Jaya went to Ulele Harbor to see what was happening. Soof after, the water began to disappear. I was with my husband and my three children, the oldest was four years old, the next one was 3 years old, and then my baby who was only 3 days old. When the tsunami hit, we ran to the top of our building. Many people were swept by the wave. I thought that the water would reach a meter or two, but I was wrong, it was as tall as a coconut tree.

During the first wave, we were still on the top floor of the building. My husband was holding our oldest child, and I was holding my baby and put my other child on a table. For the moment, after the first wave, we were still fine. But when the second wave hit us, the building started to collapse, and we were all swept away by the wave. I couldn’t see anyone, I couldn’t think of anything, my mind went balk. The second wave took my children and my husband away, and I never saw them again.”

HERI

Heri, Jubaedah’s cousin, was only 28 years old that morning of December 2004. He, even though is a Muslim, was celebrating Christmas Day the night before with some friends in Pulau Weh, an island off the coast of Banda Aceh, just two hours away by boat from the city. Heri is currently a father of three children and lives in Banda Aceh, together with his wife. His job mainly consists of taking tourists around the city by tuk tuk.

“Before talking about my experience, I am going to introduce myself. My name is Heri, I am 44 years old and I was born in Sabang, the largest town in Pulau Weh.

The tsunami had a decisive influence in my life. Then night before, we were celebrating Christmas in Pulau Weh, at Erick Green House, a bungalow hostel owned by my friend Erick. After the celebration, we went home due to exhaustion. When I woke up in the morning, I was still very tired. Not long after, I heard two explosions, they sounded like a bomb, twice. The sound was very loud. At first, I thought that something had happened between the government of Aceh and the central government of Indonesia because at that time the Aceh province wanted independence. But, I was wrong. It was not a bomb, but an explosion that occurred at the bottom of the sea. I had never felt such a strong shaking. I couldn’t get up, I felt dizzy and had to grab onto a log. When it stopped, it was a relief. Suddenly, another earthquake occurred with the same magnitude and it stopped again. Thirty minutes later,, when I was at Erick Green House, I saw the sea water between Iboh and Rubiah Island recede and advance three times. Many fish and corals were exposed. When the water advanced for the fourth time, it did it in the form of a big wave that engulfed everything. Luckily, we were in Pulau Weh, which is mountainous so the wave didn’t reach us as we had time to flee to higher ground. Not like in Banda Aceh, where thousands of people were unable to escape due to its flat terrain. In Pulau Weh there were no fatalities, only material damage, including my motorcycle.

The same day, after the earthquake, I went to see how the situation in Banda Aceh was. Everything was a disaster, everything was destroyed. I tried calling my family there but phones didn’t work. At 10 in the morning, I went to Sabang, the largest town in Pulau Weh, to check that my mother and younger brother were safe. Luckily, they were also able to run to higher ground on time. Later, at noon, we went to the port, took a fishing boat and headed to Banda Aceh, where we arrived at 1:30 in the afternoon, but there was no one.

80% of the houses and buildings had been destroyed. I looked for my other borther’s house, but it had been completely razed. I started looking for footprints, I walked for two kilometers and I only saw lifeless bodies everywhere. I saw a dead baby in its mother’s womb, a beheaded man, and many corpses with missing limbs. I tried to find someone, but I couldn’t. I tried to find one of my relatives among all the fatalities, but I couldn’t recognize anyone, the tsunami had left all the faces of the corpses black and damaged. The next day, I continued searching, but still couldn’t find anyone. On the fourth day, it was unimaginable to find them alive. The stench of corpses was worse than the previous days, I can still remember that smell. I kept looking for a week, but found nothing. My only hope was to find them in the mass grave where the dead were being buried. That day, I lost nineteen members of my family; seven aunts, five uncles and seven cousins. I never managed to find their bodies.”

YUYUN

Yuyun lived in Banda Aceh with his wife, and their 17 and 14-year-old children. In a matter of minutes, his life changed forever. He overcame his tragic past and found love again, although he did not have children again. Currently, he still lives in Banda Aceh, where he works as a tuk tuk driver.

My name is Yulianto, but everyone calls me Yuyun. On December 26, 2004, an earthquake occurred. Not long after, I ran back home to see my children. The tsunami had no happened yet, but in my house I could only find my daughter Bella, and my wife. Five minutes later, another earthquake occurred and I helped other neighbors escape their collapsing houses. Not much later, at 8:15 in the morning, a very big wave came and we ran four our lives. There was nothing left after the tsunami, all the houses had been destroyed. My children and my 7-month pregnant wife disappeared, they were all carried away by the wave. I took a walk and saw everything destroyed, later I went to the SAR’s office to watch TV. I went for a walk again, but I couldn’t find the bodies of my family. If I tell you the whole, it would take a very long time, there was nothing left. I saw corpses everywhere, even bodies without hands, heads, with pointed pieces of wood stuck in their bodies, lifeless bodies trapped between heavy things, high up in the trees… Children, adults, old people… I can’t go on, it makes me very sad every time I remember this.