SYNOPSIS:  About the Tsunami Museum which tells a horrible story pretty badly.  About two personal Tsunami stories.  And about two Boats that speak volumes. Finally, about the good that came to Banda Aceh because of the Tsunami.

I read that it cost 5.6 Million US Dollars to build and for that… really, that’s all they got?  I will be blunt (not that that is anything new) — but give me just $100,000 and I will turn this dusty place into a museum that would do the job it was set out to do much more effectively. 

The best of the museum is its architecture.  It is conceived as a boat with a shaft going all the way down, a water basin at the ground floor with floodlights built in — which I imagine, can light the museum from the inside out at night.  The curvy landscaping around the museum mimics the waves.   A dark, narrow corridor that leads into the central atrium recreates the atmosphere of the moment with sounds of hauling winds and water splashing.  That was impressive.  The first room is filled with viewing stations on which a sequence of truly moving scenes are recorded.  The heart of the building is a huge atrium where an upward sloping bridge takes visitors from the ground floor to the first floor.  The bridge is suspended over that water basin and the ceiling is covered with flags from all over the world (were these the contributing nations?) and the word “peace” inscribed into all of them in their various languages.  And from there it went downhill…

December 26, 2004 is to date the day of the most horrible Tsunami Disaster of the 21st century that took over 167,000 people’s lives in one stroke. Other estimates are higher.  It is known as the Boxing Day Tsunami. 

Around 8 AM on a Sunday, people were woken up by three consecutive earthquakes.  What they did not realize was that 15 minutes behind these tremors 18 meter tidal waves would crash over the town raking havoc.  People were just about regaining their composure after the three quakes and beginning to pick up debris, when they should have jumped into their cars and onto their motorbikes and gotten the hell away from the shoreline.  Nobody was prepared.  18 meters, that’s the size of a tall tree.  Even roof-tops were no match in the coastal region. 

Auye used to live with his family, mother, father, sister and a nephew in a small house.  When the water came, he grabbed his nephew’s hand but lost him almost immediately.  For hours he drifted in the water, eventually losing consciousness.  When he woke up with a broken shoulder at a hospital, he and his sister were the only survivors.  Today, he considers himself too poor to marry and he lives in a room in somebody else’s house.

Linda had just lost her father.  Her entire family, many of them living abroad and in other areas of Indonesia had gathered at her father’s home to observe the traditional 10 day mourning period.  The house was crowded, but the family is required to stay together.  The evening before the tsunami, her young son was crying and insisted on going home.  He was scared of that many people and had stayed in that house for long enough.  Linda only reluctantly gave in.  She, her husband and her two sons went home, about 10 km inland.  The next morning she lost her entire family to the tsunami, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles…

I can only imagine how many stories there are.  With that many people perishing in such a small town, everyone must have a story, each one more moving than the other.  Why, I ask, are there no listening stations at the museum, recording some of them and translating them into various languages?  Instead, there are some dusty old models — at least they are educational and give you a sense of the wave size and the devastation of certain areas — a broken motorbike, a bent-out-of-shape bicycle, a few dusty before-and-after pictures, and a couple of TV monitors. 

I had been told there would be a theater with a documentary showing footage of the disaster.  There is, but I missed it even though I looked all over for it!  Instead, I had no trouble finding the show that promoted tourism in Banda Aceh, or the other one that showed a Japanese feature film centered around a tsunami.  It was part of a temporary exhibit documenting tsunamis in Japan.  The top floor is supposedly recording the environmental changes to coastline, fauna and flora, outlining the impact on the economy and infrastructure but…, it was closed.

I gather you sense my disappointment.

Yesterday, on our city tour, Auye took me to two tsunami-designated monuments.  They are two boats, remnants of the storm, telling that day’s story in a more tactile way.   A mid-sized fishing boat got loose and drifted one km inland.  It came to sit atop of a house where you can still find it today.  It got stranded there and provided 56 people the elevated location they needed to survive.  Once the water receded they noticed that a crocodile had held out right beneath the boat as well.  🙂  It is quite a site to behold to see this boat today, sitting at the roof-line of the surrounding buildings.

A massive diesel tank boat anchored at the harbor.  It also broke loose and drifted a whopping 5 km inland.  It razed all the houses in its path to the ground and finally came to a halt.  I don’t think it would be possible to move that boat, even if anyone wanted to.  It has been left sitting there and now makes for an impressive memorial.  A museum of the Tsunami is housed inside the boat, but as my luck would have it — it was closed. 

I think I would have tried to preserve some of the rubble and debris around it to demonstrate the full impact of the devastation, but the area has been cleaned up.  There is no more sense of the houses this boat plowed down.  But just the thought of such a massive diesel station to be moved like a match box is simply mind boggling.

When I walked across the bridge suspended over the pond at the museum I had wondered why the flags above me spelled out peace.  Why peace?  The connection to the tsunami did not make sense to me.  The museum was of no help to provide that context.  It took Linda to fill in the blanks for me: decades of fighting between Aceh province and the Indonesian government came to an abrupt halt when the tsunami hit.  Both sides had been uncompromising and there was no end in sight.  Linda and others are convinced, that to this day, Aceh province would be a war-torn area if it had not been for the tsunami…  Through Finnish mediation and within 6 months of the tsunami, both sides agreed to the terms that are in place today:  Aceh stopped seeking independence.  But the wealth of natural resources of this region is in the control of the locals and not siphoned off by the Indonesian government as had been the case before.  A fair share of taxes is paid instead.  Aceh was given the right to vote on the implementation of sharia law and as I mentioned in an earlier blog, according to Linda, 80% of the population voted in favor of it. 

People in Aceh, no matter how many relatives and friends they might have lost are still willing to see this natural disaster as a way in which God exercised his will.  War and fighting ceased.  Peace and sharia prevailed.   

God works in mysterious ways.

Good night.