A letter from Rebecca Young in Indonesia
“Build Back Better: Remarkable Outcomes of the 2004 Asian Tsunami”
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Asian tsunami on the day after Christmas in 2004? It was one of those riveting events that had us all glued to our television sets as the number of victims climbed to an unimaginable 250,000 people. The tsunami slammed the coastlines of seven countries, including Somalia in western Africa, 4,000 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered it.
Although news of the tsunami has long since faded from the headlines, the people in those countries had their lives changed forever by the 50-foot-high wall of water traveling 500 miles an hour that washed over them seven years ago. Yet not all of the change was negative.
The island of Sumatra was closest to the epicenter and sustained 80 percent of the resulting damage, including nearly 200,000 lives lost. Hardest hit was the province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (“Aceh”), which at the time of the tsunami was involved in a 25-year-long independence struggle against the Indonesian government. In the immediate aftermath there was a remarkable turnaround in the hostilities. Both the rebels and the government soldiers turned their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) as they put down their AK-47s, picked up shovels, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder cleaning up the millions of tons of debris. The sheer massiveness of the damage caused both sides of the civil war to reconsider their positions. In August 2005 they sat down at a table in Helsinki, Finland, and signed a peace treaty that holds to this day.
I’m proud to report that congregations and generous individuals throughout the PC(USA) contributed an unprecedented amount of funds (over $16 million) to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to aid the tsunami survivors. In partnership with a number of nonprofit and church-based organizations in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, we continue to provide programs related to disaster response and preparedness. In the province of Aceh, which is 99 percent Muslim, the beneficiaries whom PDA partners are helping have asked us, “Why are the Christians staying when all the other aid agencies have left?” The No. 1 answer we give is the amazing generosity of our donors, such as those of you who are reading this, that has enabled us to do long-term work in the area.
In mid-February 2012 I had the opportunity to visit the city of Banda Aceh, which is the capital of the Aceh province and was almost completely devastated by the tsunami. Seven years later the improvements are remarkable because the people have been enabled to “build back better,” in the words of a popular development slogan. The idea is that the aid we provide to disaster survivors should not only help them to get back to where they had been, but should put them in an even better position than before the disaster. Their houses should be earthquake resistant; the schools should give children disaster preparedness training; the government should provide warnings of potential tsunamis and help with evacuations; and so on, with a host of other improvements that provide people with an upper hand in the case of future disasters.
By far the overwhelming sentiment of the people of Aceh in the aftermath of the tsunami is deep and lasting gratitude to the world for its unprecedented generosity to their cause. As a sign of their appreciation they have built a park in the middle of the capital city that is named “Aceh Thanks the World.” The park is simple yet extremely moving. The entrance has three concrete structures that resemble the three massive waves that one after another hit the coastline. In the concrete around the waves are statistics about the damage caused: 128,000 homes destroyed, the 150-mile-long coastal road and 110 bridges washed away, 1,147 schools and 30 health clinics rendered unusable. Extending both sides from this display is a circular sidewalk ringed with upended fishing boats. On the inside of each fishing boat is the name of a country that provided aid to Aceh, its national flag, and the words, “thank you” and “peace” in the language of that country. There are 53 such boats, including one with the flag of the United States.
One of the reasons that the people of Aceh are so grateful to the world for its generosity comes out of their painful experience during the protracted civil war. The majority of the people of Aceh did not take sides in the war but became victims of the vicious fighting between the rebel soldiers and the Indonesian government. Because of the many human rights violations that were occurring, the Indonesian government had closed off the province to visitors, particularly journalists, in 1999. When the tsunami occurred, the people of Aceh had been completely isolated from the outside world for over five years and felt totally abandoned and without hope.
Thus the outpouring of support that the tsunami triggered meant more to them than simply aid for disaster survivors. It was a deeper acknowledgement that the world had not forgotten them. When the peace treaty was signed, the people were even more relieved and believed that through the tsunami, God had been able to work a miracle of peace that years of negotiations had not been able to achieve.
On behalf of the people of Aceh, I want to extend my gratitude to all of you who through your prayers and compassion supported the response and recovery work for the survivors of the 2004 tsunami. Your care has not been forgotten but has indeed been memorialized in this beautiful park in Banda Aceh. It is used as a place for recreation, family gatherings, and exercise, but more importantly as a daily reminder that the world does indeed notice and care for the people of Aceh.
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 189
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Great article, Rebecca. I had the chance to visit Sumatra in summer of 2006, as a short-term volunteer surgeon on Navy hospital ship, USNS Mercy. We visited and worked, both in Banda Aceh and of Nias Island. A great experience. Thanks for the article, and keep up the good work.