Sunday, March 13, 2005

the latest from Banda Aceh

Sundays are the worst. There's no church and so we spend the entire day trying not to work. However, since it's a Muslim country, everyone else is out and about their business and nothing is closed. So, today we (me and the two other expats here - two Brits and a Canadian) decided to get out - just drive and see what we could find. Since I'm the only one with an international driving license the driving fell to me. We headed out in our blue Kijang and found a restaurant in the part of town still standing. It wasn't a particularly good restaurant, according to the locals, it just happened to be one of the only ones still standing. Another good example of location being everything. Indonesian food is quite good; a lot of seafood and fried noodles and rice. After lunch we found a couple of MSF and UN vehicles across the street at the other restaurant in town so we're hoping that there's a place better than where we ate. Next, we decided to try to find the 'tanker' and headed toward the beach.

The destruction wreaked by the waves is vast and terrible. The series of events on December 26th went something like this: the earthquake struck and loads of buildings just crumbled then. The largest supermarket in Banda - four stories - collapsed on itself and that collapse was repeated all over town. Next, came the wave which hit these weakened buildings with such height and force that it was like being hit by a 6 story high car going 35mph. This rolled inland over the island and also bent around the tip and hit the eastern side. So those who lived at the tip got hit from both directions. The wave carried on inland at such height and filled with debris from the coast into the 'flood' zone and if you couldn't get high enough or were trapped in buildings then you drowned. This wave receded to be followed by two more waves.

The neighborhoods closest to the beach have been completely leveled. Nothing remains but debris. A bit further in is more debris and some standing structures that looked like they've had the bits bombed out of them. Further in, more buildings are standing but are covered in mud and debris. When you walk around the remains of these neighborhoods you notice first the personal affects - the broken tennis racket half buried in mud, the little green bottle, the child's marble, the blue hanger tangled in rebar with a yellow dress still hanging on it. All the things that made up thousands of peoples' lives.

We eventually found the 'tanker' which has become something of a novelty destination. It's an immense offshore generator on a tanker that mysteriously washed up about two miles inland and plopped down on top of about three houses - crushing them completely. How it did this without wiping out all the houses between it and the beach is a marvel and speaks to exactly how high the water was. People were on it when the tsunami struck and are still living on it now. It sits there, placidly, in between some remaining houses, looking like it had every right to be there.

Wanting to see the southernmost beach we could get to we wound our way through the destruction - passed from time to time by the Indonesian army who were still out collecting bodies and found it uproariously funny that a woman would be driving a car. GAM guerrillas control the mountains to the east of the road and so the army patrols are heavily armed and have checkpoints along the way. We drove south along the coast with much of the area already having been bulldozed into piles that have spontaneously begun burning in the heat. Mass graves are dotted along the roads. We got as far south as a concrete factory before having to turn back. The coast is gorgeous. The sea the bright blue green for which it's famous and the surf looked stunning. If it weren't for the tsunami and that little civil conflict this could be one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

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