Mount Sinabung, a volcanic peak in North Sumatra, is once again spewing ash onto nearby communities, batuk-batuk (“coughing” in Indonesian) hundreds of times in the past week. It lay dormant for centuries but the recent volcanic activity has caused local residents to evacuate their homes sporadically since September. Winds have carried the ash and deposited it as far away as Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, which lies more than 80 kilometers northwest of the volcano. Indonesians in the surrounding area are donning disposable masks to avoid inhaling the dangerous dust particles. This is merely the most recent reminder of the unpredictability of nature, in a year that included a devastating typhoon in the Philippines.
December 26, 2013 was the ninth anniversary of another devastating natural event in Indonesia: the Boxing Day tsunami that struck northern Aceh province, southern Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and other nearby countries in 2004. I live in Medan, just an eight-hour bus ride from the area where approximately 130,000 people died that day. This proximity means that the tsunami sometimes comes up in my conversations with people in Medan. When local Indonesians meet me for the first time, it is usually assumed that I am a university student or an English teacher, but I have also been asked if I am an NGO volunteer on the way to Aceh. In the aftermath of the tsunami, and in the resulting political opening of the conflict-ridden region, thousands of foreign aid workers descended on Aceh to lend a hand.
Over the holidays, my host family invited me to watch a movie with them— The Impossible starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. It is based on the true story of a tourist family’s astonishing survival after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit their resort in Thailand. It took a year to shoot the horrifyingly realistic ten minutes depicting the tsunami, as the mother and son desperately attempt to stay alive in the dark, rushing water. While the movie has received its share of criticism (specifically, for focusing on foreigners on holiday instead of on local people affected), some survivors have praised its accuracy and portrayal of community and unity.
I had discussed the tsunami before with my host family, but watching The Impossible together made all of us emotional and they were eager to tell me more. The bencana alam (natural disaster) personally affected their family: a cousin of my host mother lost his wife and three children in the tsunami. The huge waves destroyed Banda Aceh’s infrastructure, and it was impossible for my host mother to contact anyone in the area for three days. She had been certain her cousin was also dead.
An Indonesian friend of mine, Rizal, was in Banda Aceh (the coastal capital of Aceh province) when the tsunami hit. He remembers running, and running, and running – “Just keep running” – following the crowds of panicked people. “I thought it was the apocalypse,” he says. “I was sure the same thing was happening in England, in China, in America.” The primary worry of his first day was to find fresh drinking water. The second day he looked for gas to get out of the city. And the third day, he was evacuated. He is fortunate to be among the lucky ones.
Another Indonesian friend, Erin, spent a week providing disaster relief in Aceh two weeks after the tsunami. She was a high school student at the time and, when I asked about her experience, the first thing she described was – “Like a huge grave, but no gravestone. Bodies just everywhere.” There is a particularly powerful and ghastly shot in The Impossible that pans out from the collected body bags in the disaster area. The human devastation was unimaginable. For those that did survive, the tsunami changed the coastline so greatly that many Acehnese fishermen lost their land close to the sea; a few, to this day, remain in “temporary” housing, unable to find new homes in areas that will allow them to continue pursuing their ocean-based livelihoods.
On the 9th anniversary, some Acehnese gathered to honor and remember those killed in the devastation. Since the tsunami, a museum has been erected and a landed boat, Kapal Apung Lampulo, remains on the second floor of a building 6 kilometers inland as a monument. My host mom smiles and talks with pride of the Masjid Raya Baiturrahman in Banda Aceh, the one public building that was not significantly damaged by the waves. The city of Banda Aceh has worked to improve its tsunami warning and evacuation systems, in preparation for the possibility of future natural disasters.
As we remember this tsunami, as a major snowstorm engulfs the eastern United States, and as a volcano erupts 80 kilometers from my house, I know that there’s not much we can do in the face of nature’s whimsy. But it does make me thankful for the opportunity to have these conversations, hear these stories, and start a new year in this unpredictable country.
About the author: Kelsey Figone is a returning Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Medan, North Sumatra, and is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Indonesiaful. She graduated from Scripps College in 2012 with a degree in Humanities: Interdisciplinary Studies in Culture. When Kelsey is not gathering stories for Indonesiaful, she enjoys baking cookies for her co-teachers and going for runs through the rice fields.