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‘I lost 100 family members’: Aceh tsunami survivors recount tragedy 15 years on

A two-time tsunami survivor, a mosque employee and a former guerrilla fighter told CNA their stories in Aceh, Indonesia.

‘I lost 100 family members’: Aceh tsunami survivors recount tragedy 15 years on

An Acehnese man salvages a can of propane gas from his destroyed home in Banda Aceh on Dec 30, 2004 as the clean up continues following the earthquake and tsunami that hit Aceh province on Dec 26. (File photo: AFP /Bay Ismoyo)

ACEH BESAR, Indonesia: Mr Rahmat Saiful Bahri had never heard of the word “tsunami” in his life, until one hit his neighbourhood in Banda Aceh 15 years ago.

On the morning of December 26, 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake rocked Indonesia’s most western province Aceh. Mr Bahri heard people shouting that water had rushed into the city, rising fast and flooding most of the area.

“I thought it was doomsday,” the 52-year-old recalled.

With his wife and three children in tow, Mr Bahri immediately ran to the nearest mosque for shelter. Although the tsunami waves reached 15m to 30m in some parts of Aceh, the water did not reach the second floor of the mosque.

“I saw everything being swept away by the water, from trash, house debris to human beings.

“A neighbour was stuck between the rubble. He cried for help but I couldn’t reach out to him as I was trying to save myself. I saw with my own eyes how he died,” Mr Bahri said.

Rahmat Saiful Bahri sought shelter at this mosque 15 years ago when tsunami struck. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

The carnage is still fresh on the minds of many Acehnese.

Mr Bahri and two others opened up to CNA about their pain and loss, as well as their personal takeaways from the massive devastation.

To some, there is a silver lining in terms of how the whole province has pulled together in reconstruction and development efforts.

Acehnese sift through the rubble of a collapsed building with debris scattered across the street trying to salvage what they can in Banda Aceh, Dec 29 2004, following the killer 9.0-magnitude quake and resulting tsunami Dec 26. (File photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

READ: 15 years on, a look back at the Boxing Day tsunami


Amid the chaos at the mosque, Mr Bahri, a civil servant, lost sight of his first child. He frantically searched everywhere once the water receded.

Dead bodies were scattered over the town, which was now a horrific scene of destruction. Officially, the death toll was 170,000 in Aceh.

Fortunately for Mr Bahri, his son was found alive days later in Sigli, about 110km away from Banda Aceh, as police had brought him there assuming he was orphaned.

Mr Rahmat Saiful Bahri shows a picture of his eldest son, who initially went missing during the tsunami in 2004. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

Mr Bahri was grateful that his family and close relatives survived, but the disaster left him traumatised.

“I thought water is a killer,” he said, adding that he could not swim in the ocean for a long time after the tsunami until he overcame his trauma.

But as fate would have it, Mr Bahri went through a similar horror last year. He was on a business trip to Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in September, when an earthquake struck.

His room was shaking as he was about to take a shower. Clad only in his underwear, he ran out of his room and rushed upstairs. “If the hotel was going to collapse, at least I would be on top of the building and not crushed by the ceilings,” he explained.

When he reached the top floor, he saw huge waves swallowing everything within sight. “I surrendered myself to Allah,” he recalled.

Uncleared debris from the houses after the earthquake that hit the town of Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi in September 2018 (Photo: Jeremy Long)

In that 7.5-magnitude quake and 7m-high tsunami that claimed 4,000 lives, the hotel Mr Bahri was at only suffered minor damages. He survived yet another tsunami.

From his two close brushes with death, Mr Bahri learned a couple of lessons on crisis survival.

“The key is to remain calm. Don’t panic because you can’t think clearly if you panic. You have to take actions in a rational way,” he said.

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Mr Ridwan Johan’s survival story was similar to Mr Bahri’s.

He escaped unscathed by seeking shelter at a mosque at his neighbourhood in Banda Aceh. However, his hometown of Meulaboh was one of the hardest-hit coastal cities, and most of his relatives did not make it.

“I lost 100 family members in the tsunami, my cousins and their immediate families,” the 53-year-old said.

His mother’s house was reduced to rubble but she survived by clinging on to a piece of wood as water carried her away.

Having experienced the tsunami and heard many other stories, Mr Johan concluded that a building’s structure plays a major role in whether it would survive a natural disaster - apart from God’s protective hands.

Mr Ridwan Johan at Banda Aceh's Baiturrahman mosque. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

He has been working at Banda Aceh’s iconic mosque Baiturrahman for 31 years, first as an intern and now as the technical head, and saw how it survived the huge double tragedy of earthquake and tsunami.

Built in 1292, it was rebuilt by the Dutch after a major fire in 1873.

Unlike most buildings in Aceh, the mosque emerged from the tsunami with only minor cracks in the walls and a broken fence.

“The mosque is sturdy. The foundation is solid, the tiles made by strong Italian marble. The main building was built 2m from the ground and therefore the water only reached the steps of the mosque,” he said.

As a result of the tsunami, new buildings in Aceh were better constructed, Mr Johan said.

“I think a lot of buildings are now better built because we know Aceh is prone to disasters,” he said.

Two Indonesian soldiers stand guard in front of Baiturrahman mosque, three weeks after the powerful quake and tidal wave hit Aceh province in Banda Aceh, on Jan 16, 2005. (File photo: AFP/Adek Berry)

READ: Avengers to the rescue: Volunteers educate Indonesians on disaster preparedness


For Mr Hanafiah, the 2004 Aceh tsunami has indirectly changed his life - for the better.

Puffing on a cigarette at a food stall in Aceh Besar recently, the 40-year-old told CNA he was a guerilla fighter of the now-dissolved Aceh separatist group Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement.

Having joined the GAM in 1999 when he was 20 years old, Mr Hanafiah, who goes by one name, was in the mountains of Cot Keueng when he witnessed the powerful tsunami ripping through Aceh Besar regency.

“I heard a loud bang. I thought it was our group fighting against the military. Battles were quite common in those days, so we were used to hearing loud bangs.

“But the sound was bigger than usual and so I thought, it must’ve been a big battle,” he said. 

Curious, Mr Hanafiah and his friends came out from their hiding place to check on the situation.

“The whole city was white and inundated in water … My immediate thought was, my parents are dead,” he said.

This photo taken Dec 27, 2004 shows local residents in Banda Aceh carrying away the body of a dead relative the day after a devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake flattened the area. (File photo: AFP)

The rebel group decided to descend from the mountains a week later and Mr Hanafiah found his wife and three-month-old child in an evacuation shelter.

One month later, the Red Cross found the body of his father. His mother and two nephews were never found and were presumed dead.

Mr Hanafiah and his family went on to live in a shelter for almost two years.

Now working as a temporary highway construction worker, he has left the GAM life behind him, with only battle scars - caused by gunshot wounds and surgeries - serving as evidence of his guerrilla days.

Mr Hanafiah was shot three times in a shootout in 1999. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

GAM, founded in 1976, was a separatist group fighting for Aceh’s independence as it disagreed with the government on Islamic laws, historical perceptions and the management of the province’s natural resources, especially oil and gas.

In its heyday, GAM had 27,000 members, a result of active recruitment drive through sermons in mosques.

Due to its fights, Aceh has seen insurgencies for years, with Acehnese living with regular guerrilla wars.

READ: Palu quake provides a shot at redemption for Indonesian prisoners


Following the tsunami, GAM was unofficially dissolved as everyone was busy rebuilding their lives.

An Acehnese man and two children depart after a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Helsinki peace agreement between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebel group and the Indonesian government in Banda Aceh's Baiturrahman mosque located in Aceh province on Aug 15, 2015. In the nearly 30 years of conflict, fighting between rebels and Indonesian government forces left about 15,000 people dead -- with abuses committed by both sides -- before the 2004 tsunami finally persuaded GAM and Jakarta to strike a peace deal on Aug 15, 2005 in Helsinki.

Eight months after the tsunami, the Indonesian government and GAM leaders signed a peace agreement in Finland on Aug 15, 2005 to cease all hostilities with immediate effect.

On Dec 27 the same year, GAM leaders announced they had also disbanded their military wing.

Former rebel leaders from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who are now government officials, release doves during a symbolic ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Helsinki peace agreement between the rebel group and the Indonesian government in Banda Aceh's Baiturrahman mosque located in Aceh province on Aug 15, 2015. In the nearly 30 years of conflict, fighting between rebels and Indonesian government forces left about 15,000 people dead - with abuses committed by both sides - before the 2004 tsunami finally persuaded GAM and Jak

Mr Hanafiah said he could not decide which was more difficult: Having almost died from the gunshots in shootouts, or losing his parents in the tsunami.

But one thing was sure. “The tsunami finally brought peace to Aceh, and now things are better,” he said.

Mr Bahri, the civil servant, agreed. Looking back at the pre-tsunami Aceh, he said the province is now in a better condition.

“It is more advanced, even compared to the time before the tsunami because with the insurgencies, there was no real development.”

Source: CNA/ks(tx)


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