The girl with the “Palestine” donation box had something written on her headband. A high-school student with bright, intelligent eyes and an enthusiastic smile, she was standing at a busy intersection raising money for the Palestinian victims of the recent flare-up in Gaza.
As I waited for the light to turn green, she approached me and held out her box. I could only see half of what was written on her headband, so I asked her what it said.
She answered, smiling sweetly. “Destroy Israel!”
Aceh is the most fervently Islamic province in Indonesia, and religion is central to Acehnese identity. Because of close historical ties, Aceh is known as the “Verandah of Mecca” — pilgrims to the holy city are given a discounted price.
The province is governed by a system of traditional Islamic (Shariah) law, which forbids unmarried couples from meeting in private and requires women to wear hijab outside the home. Many regard Western social and cultural values – especially sexual ones – as corrupting.
Acehnese reactions to international influence, however, are complex and don’t fall into a “clash of civilizations” framework. Current attitudes are shaped by the province’s history as a center of global trade, foreign colonialism, and, most recently, a momentous tragedy.
Wawan (or “Surfboardrepair Wawan” as he’s known on Facebook) lives in Lampuuk, a small village on Aceh’s northwest coast. On December 26, 2004, he was at home napping when the second most powerful earthquake in recorded history struck in the Indian Ocean. Aceh had the poor fortune of being the closest piece of land to the quake’s epicenter, and the resulting tsunami leveled coastal villages, destroyed a large portion of the provincial capital, and killed nearly 200,000 Acehnese.
I first met Wawan at a surf beach nearly eight years after the disaster. With a broad smile and easy gait, he projects a self-assured good humor that befits a young man who spends almost every day riding swells and fixing dings.
Wawan tells the story of the tragedy with an earnest levity, the same as if he were recounting an extreme day out on the waves. On that day, violent shaking roused him from sleep and drove him outside. His panicked neighbors had also fled from their homes, several of which collapsed.
The tremors stopped, and an ominous silence reigned, punctured by the occasional crying baby and baying dog. Then Wawan’s uncle drove up the street on his motorcycle, shouting like Paul Revere: “The water is coming! The water is coming!”
When the ocean around Aceh’s coastline receded, people in several villages ran onto the bared seafloor to snatch up gasping fish, or stood awestruck on the shoreline bearing witness to what could only be a miracle.
But owing to an oral tradition, Wawan’s uncle knew this was no divine blessing.
Wawan and his neighbor jumped on a motorbike and sped toward the hills outside the village. Over their shoulders they not so much heard as felt a deep rumbling sound that resembled a fleet of approaching semis. When they reached the hills and started ascending a steep spine, Wawan looked back.
An ashen flow of churning seawater and debris was sweeping over his village, leveling every home in its path. Only the large white mosque seemed to withstand the flood.
Wawan and his neighbors climbed the hill, and as the wave settled in around its base, they knew they were trapped. They made a fire and spent the night without water or food. The second day, they foraged small tubers and cooked them over the fire. By day three, the ocean had returned to its rightful place and Wawan could descend from the hill into the destruction below.
Wawan counts himself among the lucky, because none of his family was killed. The mess, however, was overwhelming. In place of Lampuuk now lay a fetid sea of concrete rubble, wooden planks, corpses, cars, motorcycles, felled trees, and misplaced boats.
“I wasn’t sad,” said Wawan. “Because I wasn’t the only one. If it had just been me whose house had been destroyed, then I would have felt alone and angry. But everybody had lost something. We were all in it together.”
He and his neighbors made it to a nearby village out of the tsunami’s reach, where they, along with scores of other refugees, were invited to eat instant noodles and drink bottled water.
Then he and other survivors from Lampuuk returned to the ruins of their village to bury bodies.
Outside help arrived quickly and continuously: Javanese militia erected tent shelters; Malaysian soldiers hauled away debris; European health workers distributed medicine; U.S. Army helicopters buzzed overhead en route to Banda Aceh. Wawan lived in a tent and worked with the foreigners to clean up and rebuild Lampuuk.
One day, a year or so after the disaster first struck, a chopper wheeled overhead and landed outside the ruins of the village. It was carrying Bill Clinton. He had come to offer his support for the recovery effort to which his foundation had contributed funds. When he stepped off the chopper, Wawan was one of a few villagers standing in a line to greet him.
Wawan laughs thinking about it – especially the cohort of secret service in dark suits speaking into hidden radios and glancing around furtively. When I asked how excited he was, he shrugged casually.
“I just shook his hand.” He grinned broadly. “Yeah, that was it.”
By 2007, Lampuuk had been completely rebuilt. The same white mosque still stands in the center of the village, but all the homes are new, financed by the Turkish government. An entrance arch declares it “Lampuuk – Village of the Red Crescent Moon” (several village names include similar monikers paying tribute to the foreign donors who rebuilt them, such as Kuwait, Germany, and Jackie Chan).
Now that reconstruction is over, nearly all the NGOs and foreigners have left Aceh. But the outpouring of assistance will not soon be forgotten. (All told, foreign governments, NGOs and individuals donated more than $7 billion in aid to the area.) Wawan, at least, will always remember the firm grasp of a white-haired former president nicknamed Bubba.
About the author: Gordon LaForge is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Banda Aceh. He served his first Fulbright year in Bontang, East Kalimantan. Before coming to Indonesia, LaForge lived in Prague where he taught kindergarten and wrote for The Prague Post. LaForge graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.