Tears are shed, prayers cited as survivors of the 2004 tsunami, along with the loved ones of victims and former relief volunteers from around the world, gathered to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam on Friday.
The province was the hardest hit by modern history’s biggest tsunami, which stemmed from an earthquake deep beneath the Indian Ocean, closer to Aceh’s northwest coastline than to India.
Of the 230,000 dead or missing in a dozen countries after a more than 10 meter tidal wave wiped out their coastlines, Aceh accounted for 96 percent of the casualties, or around 221,000 people.
For Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who played a leading role in the relief efforts during the tsunami, there was no other bigger lesson from the disaster than that Aceh had transformed itself and achieved unimaginable progress.
“The disaster brought enemies together and reconciled their differences,” said Kalla while attending the memorial centered in Aceh’s capital Banda Aceh.
Kalla referred to the end of a three-decade separatist conflict that had killed 15,000, as commanders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed to a peace accord shortly after the disaster.
Overwhelmed by the memorial, Kalla finally shed tears upon recalling the scale of the devastation.
“Since the beginning of the ordeal, I always refrained from weeping. If I cried, who would then help the Aceh people?” said Kalla, who had been serving for just two months as vice president when the disaster struck in 2004.
“But when I saw that footage [of the devastation], I could not help myself [from shedding tears],” he said.
Aceh Governor Zaini Abdullah, a former top GAM leader, highlighted the importance of overseas support in giving the Aceh people “a new hope” after the disastrous tsunami.
“Your presence has lifted the spirits of the Aceh people, who now know that they have friends from every corner of the world,” said Zaini before thousands of local residents and representatives from 35 donor countries and dozens of international organizations that had provided Aceh with recovery assistance.
Around 10 days after the tsunami, a UN summit was held and all participating countries managed to collect a total of US$5 billion for the assistance.
“I’ve never seen social solidarity shown on a such large scale,” said Kalla. “Aceh would not be able to move on without all your support and participation.”
Among the dignitaries attending Friday’s commemoration were Singapore’s Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for Defense Chan Chun Sing, US Ambassador Robert Blake and German Ambassador Georg Witschel.
Blake said his country was proud to see how US-funded projects in Aceh, including the establishment of Aceh Polytechnic and the 245-kilometer road connecting Banda Aceh and Calang, had helped create significant benefits for the locals.
“The American people can be very proud of the impact that we had [in Aceh],” he said.
Chan, meanwhile, said the long-time cooperation between the Indonesian and Singaporean militaries had also helped the country to provide effective support to Aceh’s recovery. “The long-standing friendship between our militaries has built trust and mutual understanding, which made our cooperation in the relief efforts more effective.”
Indonesia has also highly honored the sacrifices of nine Australian servicemen who were killed during the humanitarian efforts when their helicopter crashed on Nias Island near Aceh in April 2005.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming assistance from the international community, critics have underlined the concern that Aceh’s leaders have increasingly been turning the province into a hard-line Islamic jurisdiction.
As one of the many demands GAM commanders made in the peace accord, Aceh is the only Indonesian province that can impose sharia, which includes caning as a punishment for both Muslim and non-Muslim violators.
This has been cited as being among the factors deterring foreign investment and discouraging some Western tourists from visiting the province’s abundant pristine beaches. Graft has also run rampant, creating a high-cost economy that has prevented the province from receiving investments in manufacturing industries.
Source: The Jakarta Post