The December 26, 2004 tsunami devastated coastal areas in Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province. Banda Aceh and other cities on the west coat of Aceh resembled Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. When the waters receded, dead bodies were left in people’s yards. Rice cookers were deposited on the roofs of houses. Cars were left in trees. In Aceh land that once houses 120,000 people was permanently submerged under water.

Around 170,000 people were killed (130,000 confirmed dead, 37,000 missing) in Indonesia, most of them in Aceh province. For a while it was thought around 230,000 people were killed there but in April 2005, the government reduced the number of missing from 95,000 to 37,000. The tsunami left more than 500,000 people homeless and caused an estimated $4.5 billion in losses and damage.

The tsunami waves that inundated Banda Aceh were a mixture of saltwater, dirt, sewage, garbage and debris. In some places, in 10 minutes a three-meter-high wall of mud, water and debris swept almost 10 kilometers inland. Densely-backed, inhabited water front areas were swept clean, leaving nothing but a few foundations among puddles and ponds. Many of dead that did not drown were thrown against buildings or cut by flowing pieces of tree, wood and metal.

The Los Angeles Times reported: “What had seemed to be a moderate earthquake shook residents of Banda Aceh, a city of about 150,000 at the northern tip of Sumatra, around 8 a.m. local time. About half an hour later, many of them were outside inspecting their houses for damage when, on what had been a clear, sunny day, the sky filled with water. Survivors remembered a sound like the drumbeat of a driving rain. "Water! Water! Big water!" some screamed, unable to articulate the nature of the phenomenon. This was water like nobody had seen -- snarling, tall as a four-story building. [Source: Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2005]

"It was like Armageddon," remembered Zukarnaen Buyung, a strapping 30-year-old construction worker. "We didn't know it was a wave. We thought it was some kind of rain. Everything behind us was black. The sky, the water." Buyung ran. Little high ground exists in Banda Aceh, which is built along a palm-studded coastal plain, but Buyung managed to scramble up a bridge, dragging his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. They watched, horrified, as the strangely voracious water swallowed up relatives and neighbors. A brother and a nephew disappeared as Buyung looked down, helpless. "I watched. I couldn't do anything," he recalled, his voice choked with grief.

“The tsunami obliterated a swath of the city stretching three miles from the sea. It lifted 75-foot fishing boats and dumped them in the middle of the city, deposited hundreds of bodies in front of what had been brightly lighted shops on Panglima Polem Street. Single-story wooden houses were dismantled as if they were made of sticks, and trees were pulled out like blades of grass. South along Sumatra's long Indian Ocean coastline, entire villages disappeared without a trace.

Surveying the Damage Caused by the Great Tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia

Edward Girardet wrote in National Geographic: As the Malaysian army helicopter lurched forward, hugging the western coastline of Indonesia's tsunami-battered Aceh Province, I clung to the half-open portal, mesmerized by the devastation that unfolded below me. The few trees that had survived the watery onslaught of just a couple weeks ago stood like solitary sentinels along newly created shorelines and inlets. It was as if the wooden homesteads and rice fields in these Indian Ocean communities had been carefully — and diabolically — plucked up from the Earth. [Source: Edward Girardet, National Geographic, December 2005]

“I struggled to identify anything recognizable on the ground. Two years earlier I'd traveled to Aceh to report on the region's ongoing civil war. Now its familiar landmarks were gone. For close to two miles inland the muddy land was shorn of any trace of human existence. Then, just on the other side of the "front line," where the tsunami's surge had run out of impetus, I could see the tiny figures of farmers tending rice fields and children playing in the mango trees.”

Victims of the Great Tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia

The city of Banda Aceh lost around a quarter if its 223,000 people. The main hospital for Aceh, located there, lost 40 percent of its medical staff. Many patients were killed too. The tsunami occurred while the hospital was treating victims from the earthquake. Two islands off the northwestern coast of Aceh broke into four and in the process lost 7,000 of its 11,000 people. The island of Malinggei was completely swept clean of people. After the disaster none of the 500 people that lived there were left. The only large animals were dogs feeding on corpses. Aceh Province as a whole lost about 5 percent of its population of 4 million people. Almost all the deaths were along the coast. A few people living inland were killed by the earthquake.

In some towns and neighborhoods in Aceh the death rate reached 90 percent. The village of Lampuuk had 6,500 residents before the disaster and only 700 afterwards. Fewer than 20 of the survivors were women. Calang had 7,300 people before the tsunami and 750 afterwards. The only building left standing was a large, white mosque. There wasn’t even much debris. Everything was swept away. In the next village to the south, Kreung Sabe, half the 4,000 people that lived there were killed and all but 500 were left homeless. Further south still in Panga not a single house was left standing and around 800 of the 1,100 people that lived there were killed.

The most powerful waves from the tsunami struck Meulaboh, a city of 70,000 on the west coast of Aceh, 170 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh. It was the closest city to the epicenter of the earthquake and was devastated by both the earthquakes and the tsunami. The waves reached three kilometers inland. Tens of thousands died. But the nearness to the earthquake is believed to have saved many people who were driven out of their homes by the quake and heeded warning to run to high ground when people saw the wave approaching. Many of the dead were children, who couldn’t swim or weren’t strong enough to escape when water engulfed them.

Bodies were strewn in the streets, rotting in the tropical sun and producing a horrible stench. Many were dumped in mass graves, sometimes 60 at a time with bulldozers, without a ceremony or funeral rites. This added insult to injury of the disaster to the largely devout Acehese who were distressed to see their relatives denied a proper Muslim burial. At first many bodies were left unburied because local people wanted them to have a proper Muslim burial. They were then buried en mass after a Muslim cleric in Jakarta issued a fatwa, declaring in a time of crisis it was okay to bury people without proper rites.

A year after the disaster an iman at a mosque in Ulee Lheue in Aceh told wprshippers that the tsunami was a religious warning. “Please forgive the people who have left us for their wrongdoing,” he said.

Tsunami Body Collectors in Aceh

In Aceh, the Red Cross paid local men around $3.25 a day to collect bodies. Outfit with gloves, surgical, masks , body bags and shovels, they worked from 7:00am to 5:00pm, poking around ruined houses and found bodies among bushes and fetid pools of water and mud. Bodies were uncovered at a rate of more than a thousand a day through January and couple hundred a day through February until around mid March when the search became more of a hunt.

One worker told the New York Times, “In the first week, the smell was not so bad. With a simple mask and simple gloves we could handle it.” As the weeks wore on the stench grew worse and workers needed industrial-grade masks. They also found that after some time the bodies were either badly bloated or the came apart easily and wrapping them in plastic was easier than placing them in a body bags.

Describing one of these men at work, Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Fauzi Husaini is lying on his belly under the collapsed house, clawing at the dirt with his fingers to get the dead man’s skull free...The body under this house was not picked up in earlier sweeps, probably because it is pinned under concrete and mangled iron. It won’t be free easily...Husaini and his team of seven body hunters go to work...First they need to prop up what remains of the house to get better access to the body...The dead man’s left arm comes apart at the elbow and a worker drops it in a body bag.”

“The men have pulled and strained at the debris for an hour and, finally, more body parts are pulled from the wreckage. The skull is handed from one man to another and carefully placed at the top of the body bag...They are amazed when they find the dead man’s watch, caked in mud, still ticking....A quiet arguments break out between men over who will keep it...Ten minutes later, the torso is pulled free if its tomb. In the pants they find ID cards, a cell phone and a phone book. The man’s name is Hanaflah Ilyas. He was 31 and married.” Some friends of the family are called and told if no one claims the body in a few hours it will buried in a mass grave.

In Aceh there is one mass grave that holds 47,000 bodies, where bodies were hastily dumped three-deep in pits that were dug in the days following the disaster.

Survivors and Explanations for the Great Tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia

Many survivors escaped death by seeking refuge in local mosques and climbing to the upper floors and roofs. In some cases these mosque were the best built structures in town and the only buildings to survive. Often those who made it to the upper floors survived while those on the ground floor were swept away. Many prisoners escaped the main prison in Aceh after the tsunami knocked down the prison walls. Understandably they fled to save their lives but few turned themselves in afterwards.

When the Muslim Acehese were asked why they thought they tsunami happened or how they felt ,many simply said “it was god’s will” and that god had some ultimate purpose behind all of it. Some saw it was a personal test of their faith. Some viewed the tsunami as a religious event intended to punish sinners.

One imam told group of 700 people gathered at his mosque: “This was caused by our sins. Some Muslim people celebrated Christmas, they drank alcohol and they danced on the seashore in violation of the Muslim way. This was a big mistake.”

A surprising number believed a story that the tsunami was created to punish a group of Christian Indonesian government soldiers who were partying at the grave of a revered 17th century religious leader and were rude to a mullah who told them to leave. Many in Aceh had no access to television or radio and didn’t know what to believe.

People Who Survived a Long Time at Sea After the Great Tsunami of 2004 in Indonesia

An Indonesian man named Ari Afrizal survived for two weeks at sea after he was pulled out to sea while building a house in Calang. He told Reuters, “I managed to survive as I ate the flakes of old coconuts for about 12 days. For three days I didn’t get to eat anything. I gave up all hope of living...The first day I clung to a piece of wood, the second day I retrieved a small fishing boat but it was leaking. I was in the small boat for four days before I managed to get in a raft.” He was rescued by a container ship.

Another man from Aceh drifted for eight days before being spotted by a Japanese-owned cargo ship. He was cleaning a mosque in Banda Aceh when he was swept out to sea. “At first there were some friends with me. After a few days they were gone...I saw bodies left and right.” A pregnant Indonesian woman clung to a floating sap palm tree for days before being rescued. She was badly sunburned and bitten by fish but her baby remained safe.

Another woman was preparing to go to a wedding when the tsunami swept her out to sea. “I was alone in the middle of the ocean,” she said. She clung to a tree and took off her clothes to prevent them from dragging her down. Four days later she was rescued by fishermen who were pulling bodies from the sea.

Tsunami Survivor Stories from in Indonesia

One fisherman told the Los Angeles Times he and his crew felt the earthquake when they were at sea. Shortly afterwards the seabed dried out and a wall of water approached “as fast as lightning.” The fisherman was able to steer his boat over three gigantic waves without capsizing. One survivor in Meulaboah said, “The sea went out. People were trying to gather up the fish. Suddenly I saw the water was coming back — so I ran and told to tell my family to run. I started shouting, “Run, run, run !”

In Banda Aceh many were outside checking the damage from the earthquake. One resident told Time: “I heard the earthquake had destroyed the Pantai Shopping Mall up the road and went to have a look. I was looking at the building and I turned around to see the water coming into the city from two directions. The waves looked empty but on top they were carrying everything from cars to the roofs of houses. I ran.”

The surges of water poured through the streets, carrying away much of what was in their path. Vehicles were picked and carried along with timbers, pieces of concrete and bodies. It was moving faster than anyone could run. A man who was at a market a mile inland in Banda Aceh told the Los Angeles Times he jumped on his motorbike when he saw the wall of water coming. He joined panicked people in cars, other motorbikes, on foot. Some were shouting out to God for forgiveness. He said he looked back once and saw the wave toss two fishing boats in the air.

Another survivor told the Los Angeles Times he huddled on the balcony of friend’s house and watched the water carry off people and cars. He made a rope from clothes and saris and managed to pull ten people to safety. After the waves went as far inland as they could the backwash began. It produce a loud sucking sound and in many cases was more dangerous than the initial wave. One survivor told Time, “I will never forget he the screaming of those being washed out to sea.”

Bodies, Displaced People and Debris After the December 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia

One survivor told the Los Angeles Times he went back to the downtown area of Banda Aceh 11 hours after the first wave appeared. The city was in ruins. He saw at least 400 bodies floating near the mouth of the Aceh River. Using a pole he turned bodies. He found his best friend, four cousins, one 3 and another 7, and an uncle. He collected the bodies one by one and buried them. He then walked around. He came across one bridge where bodies had collected in the rivers. Survivors walked around like zombies, he said, bumping into one another without saying a word.

One official in Banda Aceh told AP, three days afterwards, “It smells so bad....The human bodies are mixed in with dead animals like dogs, fish, cats and goats.” Two weeks or so later Marianne Kearney wrote in U.S. News and World Report, “The still littered with swollen bodies...You can still look over the side of the twisted concrete and steel bridge, gaze in the Pehayng Rier, and watch the corpse of a woman go by, a plastic bottle tangle on her legs, face down...Or see a body of a child or small woman being pulled from a canal by three Indonesian soldiers. Farther down the street, only a foot protrudes from the earth, thus far escaping official notice and , so, still not added to the body count.”

Kearney wrote: “For block after block, mile after mile, the ocean has pilled debris wily-nilly. Here wood and concrete and wooden beams embrace a cartoon-colored boat of red, blue, and yellow. There, dozens of boats have been left in splinters while a white fishing boat sits pristine, unmolested....The first cranes and bulldozers have set to work, but cleaning the debris on a scale like hard work...Narrow path meander through the shattered city, mini-mountains of rubble in either side..high and unstable...Soldiers patrol to guard against looting, but in most places, there is simply nothing to loot...The tsunami occurred in the middle of the rainy season. With the buildings gone, people get out of the sun and rain by hiding under tents or tarps. And pieces of plastic and sit on benches hewn from scavenged pieces of wood. Beyond the fringes of the disaster, markets opened up and did brisk business.”

Many displaced people were able to move in with relatives or fix up their own old homes. As of early February 2004, only about a quarter of the 500,000 people who were displaced were regarded as truly homeless. Many of these found shelter in relief camps. Efforts to build temporary housing were directed primarily towards them. Many people were able to find work working for relief agencies or providing services for them or the relief effort.

One woman in Banda Aceh was reunited with her 10-year-old son after seven weeks. The boy, Iwan Nafis, was staying at his grandparent’s house at the time of disaster. In the chaos that followed the tsunami unknown people took him to a refugee camp. Iwan was so traumatized he was unable to describe his mother of father or give his address. In an effort to cheer the boy up social workers took him on a drive through Banda Aceh and ended up by chance in his neighborhood. The car stopped. Neighbors told the social workers the location of the refugee camp, where his mother was staying.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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