Aceh remembers 2004 tsunami as nation deals with new disaster

A man paying his respects at the Ulee Lheue cemetery, where thousands of victims of the 2004 tsunami are buried in Banda Aceh.
A man paying his respects at the Ulee Lheue cemetery, where thousands of victims of the 2004 tsunami are buried in Banda Aceh.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ACEH BESAR • Thousands prayed at mass graves in Aceh yesterday to mark the 14th anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, one of the worst natural disasters in history, even as aid workers raced to help victims of the latest killer wave to hit Indonesia.

The annual memorial came after the long-buried remains of dozens of Boxing Day tsunami victims were found last week in Aceh province, which was devastated by the 9.1-magnitude "megathrust" earthquake.

Nearly 170,000 people died in disaster-prone Indonesia when the quake struck Aceh, a predominantly Muslim province in the northern tip of Sumatra Island, sparking massive waves that also slammed into coastal areas as far away as Somalia.

The disaster killed about 50,000 people in other countries around the Indian Ocean, bringing the total number of deaths to about 220,000.

The commemorations are particularly poignant this year after a volcano-triggered tsunami struck another part of the country without warning last Saturday, sweeping over popular beaches and inundating tourist hotels and coastal communities, killing more than 400.

Yesterday, thousands paid tribute to the 2004 tsunami victims at a mass grave in Aceh Besar regency, where nearly 47,000 are buried in a grassy field dotted with black rocks meant to symbolise a tomb.

"None of my family members has been found, but I believe they are buried here," said mourner Dewina, who carried flowers and incense sticks to burn.

Mr Kharuddin, who goes by one name like many Indonesians, said he also thinks his lost relatives are buried at the vast site.

"I lost my mother and three siblings. I survived after floating out to sea and was rescued by a fishing boat," he told Agence France-Presse. "Fourteen years have gone by, and life goes on. All we can do is pray."

Last week, the remains of more than 30 victims of the 2004 tsunami were found by villagers near a construction site of a newly built housing complex in Aceh. Another dozen bodies were later discovered at the same site.

The first victim identified was Mr Taufik Alamsyah's wife, who still had her driver's licence in a wallet stuffed into her pants pocket.

"I could not believe that I found my wife after all these years of searching and praying," he told AFP in a recent interview. "I have been waiting and wanting to see (her body) with my own eyes."

The 50-year-old civil servant has now buried his wife Yunida's remains in the backyard of his new house, where he lives with his current wife.

Mr Alamsyah also lost his five-year-old daughter and in-laws in the 2004 disaster, and has suffered from depression ever since.

The distraught father, who comes back to his old house every year to pray, grabbed his daughter in the chaos, but the force of the water swept her away.

He had taught his daughter to memorise the family's address so that she could return home if she ever got lost.

"If she was alive, she would probably be in college now," he said.

Now, buildings left unscathed by the giant waves have become tourist attractions, including several mosques.

One of these mosques is Masjid Rahmatullah in Aceh Besar. Its imam Sulaiman Mohd Amin, 64, said that on the day of the tsunami, he and his fellow villagers were cooking for a wedding feast when the village was inundated swiftly by blackened sea water. 

"I saved myself by holding on to a piece of wood... I drifted for about 3km before I found myself entangled on the dome of the mosque," he recalled.

About 7,000 people in his village, including his wife and four children, lost their lives that day.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2018, with the headline 'Aceh remembers 2004 tsunami as nation deals with new disaster'. Print Edition | Subscribe