Aceh 10 Years Later: Beautifully, Heartbreakingly Normal


Boarding the plane from Jakarta, I got my first indication that the Banda Aceh I was returning to wasn’t the same as the one I had left 10 years ago. “Where are you going?” the young flight attendant asked cheerfully. When I told her Banda Aceh, she broke into a huge smile, and said “Oh, it’s so beautiful there! You have to go to Lampuuk beach. It’s my favorite.”

I almost laughed, and then realized she was serious; she assumed I was a tourist. She didn’t mention the tsunami.


When I first came to Banda Aceh 10 years ago, I was part of CARE’s emergency team, responding to the biggest natural disaster in recent memory: the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 167,000 people in Indonesia alone. At that time, planes were full of foreigners like me, aid workers heading out to help.


When I was first asked to come back to Banda Aceh to document life 10 years after the tsunami, I was nervous, and a bit scared. How different would it be? How could people have possibly moved on in the stripped, blasted landscape that the tsunami left them?


Aceh was the first big disaster I had ever responded to as a young aid worker, and it has haunted me ever since. I can never forget the choked whispers of a mother describing how it felt as her son’s hand slipped through hers as he was sucked under by the waves; the smell of the bodies buried in the rubble; the image of the twisted piles of naked trees and people swept in by a wall of water taller than most buildings here.


But driving in from the airport, I realized I didn’t recognize it. New buildings have sprung up everywhere, and in the tropical sun, the paint has faded to make them look as if they had always been there. The giant water tower in the middle of town, damaged in the earthquake that caused the tsunami, was gone, and a cheerful children’s playground was in its place. Even the distinctive pastel yellow and orange houses CARE built for survivors had changed, as people added extensions and repainted over the years to make them their own.


Climbing to the top of the newly built tsunami evacuation centers near the site of Ground Zero, where the tsunami first hit the coast, I gazed out at a city that looked unfamiliar, but normal; beautifully, heartbreakingly, normal.


“Extraordinary” is the word most people used when they told me about the changes in their city in the past 10 years. Yes, the response wasn’t perfect – there were some things we could have done better, such as giving people more choice in the reconstruction of their houses and coordinating better with aid agencies and the government to make sure we didn’t duplicate efforts or miss anyone in need in the early, chaotic days of the emergency response. But here, more than anything I’ve seen in my 12 years in aid work, I see how the world can come together and really change lives, and give them a chance to start again in a place where rebirth seemed impossible. And I can see how the people of Aceh have worked to rebuild and move forward after a disaster that would have crippled most of us.

The change is everywhere. The little girl who almost died from malnutrition after the tsunami now dreams of being a teacher. The elderly couple who thought they would die without a home now have a welcoming, airy house where their grandchildren play and steal cookies from the kitchen. The woman who opened a shop and now earns enough to help her son go to university. The fish-drier who rebuilt his business and provides employment to eight people left jobless after the tsunami.


There are still scars, and while the city looks like any other Indonesian city, it is not perfect, and it never will be. There are people who are unemployed, and some people complain about local services. But those are Banda Aceh’s challenges, any city’s challenges, and the people here will deal with those on their own, as they should.


There are other scars, the ones from deeper wounds and that will never fully heal. A woman started to weep silently when she told me of how her two young children had been killed in the tsunami, and how every December, she cries. How for other families, every earthquake brings back old fears. But for most, the tsunami is something in the past, something that can be remembered, but that does not dictate the way they live their lives today.


I did make it to Lampuuk beach, the site suggested by the flight attendant. A new beachside restaurant had been built, a cool pine forest has reclaimed its original space, and rows of welcoming beach huts lined the pristine white sand beach, while local teenagers and families laughed and played in the surf.


The flight attendant was right: Aceh is beautiful.

Written by Melanie Brooks