Remembering Tsunami 2004: ‘I wanted to know’

The Star, 19 Dec 2014

The Star’s WONG CHUN WAI was among the first foreign newsmen to arrive in tsunami-ravaged Aceh. This is his original report, updated and with a fresh perspective to mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

It was bizarre but then I am a journalist at heart. I had to be there. I wanted to know what the stench of death was like in tsunami-hit Aceh.

My wish was granted when I finally reached Ground Zero 10 days after the disaster. I was warned that the smell of death would stay with me forever.

I arrived in Banda Aceh fully prepared: with a mask, a thick handkerchief, and a bottle of minyak angin (medicated oil).

After 20 years as a hard-nosed journalist then, and having covered a wide of spectrum of news, including gruesome killings, I thought I would be able to stomach what I would see.

My Indonesian driver, Maran Gunawan, had warned me before we drove out of the airport that even more than 10 days after the catastrophe, the stench was unbearable because the mass burials had yet to be completed.

While efforts were being made to remove bodies from the rubble of damaged buildings, the focus of the rescue workers was on saving lives and searching for survivors, not the dead.

Maran looked me in the eye and asked whether I was sure I wanted to look at the bodies. I nodded and told him, in Bahasa Malaysia, to move immediately.

It had not been a good day for him and other locals as an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter Scale had hit northern Sumatra earlier, sending panicky Acehnese, still trying to cope with the aftermath of the disaster, into the streets again.

Barely 10 minutes after we drove out of the airport and beneath a huge archway with the sign “Selamat Datang ke Serambi Mekah (Welcome to the Veranda of Mecca)”, the stench became apparent.

Just a short distance away, a huge hole had been dug to bury the dead. A huge pile of bodies, all in black body bags, had been left unattended at the mass grave. No one knew for sure when these unidentified victims would be buried.

The locals just passed by without a second glance. Only a few journalists like me, who had just arrived, took the trouble to stop and look at the gruesome scene.

Maran, who had lost countless relatives and friends, refused to get out of the car, though the 26-year-old former contractor, who had turned to making a living driving journalists around the ravaged parts of Banda Aceh, told me to take my time.

But even my two layers of protection were not enough. My trusted minyak angin, which had faithfully served me for decades, did not work this time. The place smelt of dead rats, like the ones we sometimes find trapped in our homes, except that the stench was much more horrible.

I saw Maran, who was still suffering from the trauma of the disaster, closing his eyes and presumably offering a short prayer before we drove off. What greeted me after that was even more shocking.

The central part of Banda Aceh, which used to be the commercial area of the city, was in shambles.

I saw workers clearing the mud-blackened debris using cranes and trucks near Pasar Atjeh, just next to the Baitulrrahman Grand Mosque, but they would probably need many months before they could complete their task.

This part of Banda Aceh resembled a war zone; I saw more rotting corpses being pulled out from the flattened area by soldiers and rescuers who were trying to look for survivors.

Jalan Cutmutia, where lovers used to congregate in the evenings to enjoy the cool sea breeze along the promenade, was now a sorrowful wasteland. Wails and cries filled the air as frightened families wandered around looking for their missing loved ones.

A truck carrying prisoners was trapped in some rubble and no one was able to tell me their fate. They had been on their way to court to be tried. Some said they escaped while others said they survived but no one really seemed to know.

In nearby Penayong, where the thriving Chinatown had once been located, the rows and rows of double-storey shops were all gone. It looked like it had been hit by waves of bombs.

The 3m-high killer waves that had swallowed and swept away this commercial hub had transformed it, in 10 minutes, into a wasteland of muddied wooden planks and piles of stones.

I passed by a damaged temple, the Vihara Dharma Bahti, which must have once catered to the Buddhist community there.

“It was worse on the first and second days after the waves, thousands of corpses filled the river while many more were trapped underneath that bridge,” said Maran.

As our journey continued to other parts of Banda Aceh, Maran alerted me to the many speeding trucks with flashing lights that were ferrying more bodies or survivors.

There were countless numbers of victims, including children, huddled in makeshift tents that were pitched along roads by many aid organisations.

Some of these groups put up huge signs with the words “Indonesia Menangis(Indonesia is crying)”. They are a reminder of the colossal forces that came thundering in from the ocean to overwhelm this Indonesian province, where around 100,000 people died.

As I flew back in a Seahawk chopper based on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, I had a good aerial view of Meulaboh, which was the hardest hit, as it was located closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. The mosque stood visibly untouched over a vanished town centre, a scene that the world has grown familiar with now.

Aceh certainly needed plenty of divine help, even as the world raced against time to bring relief to the place.

From the air, I could see countless bloated bodies floating in the sea and I, naively, asked why we could not send boats to retrieve these bodies.

The American Marine said that I was insane, because these corpses would just “burst” if anyone were to touch them.

Soon, Malaysians were to begin the rumours that we should not be eating fish from Indonesia, even those from the sea off Penang, which had also been affected albeit with a fraction of the damage.

There were other lessons: It was the Americans that carried out the most effective rescue operations with their helicopters as it was almost impossible to travel by car on Aceh’s badly damaged roads.

Food and water supplies could only be distributed by chopper, and the Americans made it clear: they would only carry items that were made in America and that came from the aircraft carrier.

The result was that many rescue teams, especially those from Europe, ended up sitting on a football field next to the airport as the rescuers could only watch the US Marines carrying out their work with clockwork precision.

It is now 10 years since the Aceh tragedy. I will never forget what I saw.

It remains one of my saddest experiences as a newsman. Even as I write this, the nauseating stench of death still lingers – they were right.

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