Sunday morning, December 26, 2004..
I was home in my rented place in Bandung, enjoying “me” time in that long weekend since the day before was also a Public Holiday (Christmas). At around 8 AM I just finished breakfast and was going to do the laundry when seeing this breaking news on TV: An earthquake just hit Banda Aceh, stay tuned for more info. Well, I thought, that was not good, but I didn’t think of it further. Please don’t get me wrong, as an Indonesian living in Indonesia at that time, I had heard and even experienced earthquake many times. Geographically and geologically speaking, lying on the Ring of Fire area makes Indonesia very prone to it. So, earthquake is bad news; however, the news about earthquake happened somewhere in Indonesia is not unusual.
At around 11 AM, I saw another breaking news: A big flash flood just swept Banda Aceh, stay tuned for more info. I was like, wasn’t it the earthquake that just happened there? I mean, flood was bad news too, but it was weird because the news about flood was filled with images of the earthquake aftermath, no images showing the flood. I thought, something didn’t add up here. But still.., I didn’t think of it further than that.
The next day, Monday, December 27th, I was at work as usual. Some colleagues heard a bit about Aceh earthquake and none of us seemed to realise that something terrible beyond words just hit the area. Then at night, watching the news before going to sleep, I was SHOCKED to see the latest news about the disaster, an aerial footage of Banda Aceh when it was being hit by gigantic waves…TSUNAMI..! I was like.., no.., no.., no, this is not happening, not there, not in Indonesia..! Tsunami only happens in Japan..! I just couldn’t believe myself..! I called friends and families, all of us started to figure out what really happened in Aceh on Sunday, December 26.
From there, everything seemed so unreal, felt so unreal. Day by day more and more shocking, devastating, heartbreaking, gut wrenching, overwhelming news along with horrifying images and footages shown on TV. It was too much to take in. Every Indonesian who got connection to Aceh, family and friends who lived there, wanted to go to Aceh, in addition to all kinds of news crew and search & rescue team.
At work, the Management considered to help any Acehnese worker get in touch with their family in Aceh. Since I was the Head of Admin Department, I got appointed to lead this particular task. Out of 10,000 workers in this footwear manufacturing company, there were 10 persons who had strong ties with Aceh, having close and/or extended family members lived in those affected areas. After some tough talks, the Management, with the company owner’s consent, decided to send these 10 persons to Aceh at company’s cost for as long as it take, and consider their absence at work as paid leave.
After some extraordinary preparation, I believe it was around mid January 2005 when we finally sent them to Aceh. The plan was that this group of 10 would go to an Indonesian Air Force base in Jakarta that provided military transportation to fly to Banda Aceh, then from there each of them would go to the affected area where their family lived. Whilst there, everyone had to keep me posted as possible as they could, help the affected family as possible as they could too, and then return to Bandung. One of them, let’s just call him Didi, was assigned as the Group Leader. Pak Didi was actually one of my staffs in the Admin Team. He was a senior employee that for some reasons (perhaps envy) often gave me hard times and hostility. He once was a respected senior staff until one day when he made a substantial mistake that caused him demoted to a basic level. As time went by, he improved himself good enough for him to get back on track for a promotion. However, he didn’t get that because eventually I was the one who got promoted. When this disaster happened, I was just a year in charge. I decided to assign Pak Didi as the Group Leader because I knew basically he was a good staff, it’s just that sometimes his ego got in the way.
Having left Bandung, from time to time I got update from at least one of them. When they finally reached Banda Aceh, that was the last time the group was together. Everyone started to go each own way. And from there, the update was getting less frequent and it’s either bad, worse, and worst news..
Some in the group found the family members safe and sound, even though their homes were completely swept away. Some had to accept that some family members were either dead or missing. And few had to deal with a devastating fact that no one and nothing survived. Every time we talked on the phone, I stayed calm while giving words of comfort and support. While the truth is, I was so close to weeping and had to shake it off once finished talking with them. Watching the news from TV was completely different from hearing about it from someone you know on site.
Few times I thought that perhaps sending them to Aceh was a mistake. First when one of them, let’s call her Lina, a girl in mid 20s, told me that half of her extended family members were dead. However, despite the very crazy and unfortunate circumstances, she and the survived ones did their best to stay sane by helping others. Second was when Pak Didi said that the hope to find the survivors led him to the conflict area. I heard multiple gunshots sound in the background when he was talking with me on the phone. He had to go there because none left to find in where his extended family used to live, and some people told him that some survivors went up to the higher grounds where the separatist group (Free Aceh Movement = Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) was normally based at. All I could do was say: “Please.., take a very good care of yourself..” I thought, if something bad or worst happened to them there, what would I say to their family in Bandung? How would I be held accountable for this?
This went on for about two weeks, then one by one they started returning to Bandung. All of them came home safe (Oh.., thank God!), but still in a deep emotional shock. Not much they could do to deal with that but pray for the souls taken on that day, and.. move on. Each of them had different ways of moving on, but one thing for sure, life was never the same again for these 10 persons.
Some things were definitely not the same anymore for Pak Didi too. Returning from this trip, I noticed that he never gave me any hard times like he used to. Several months passed, and I thought that Pak Didi and I somehow had reconciled. I don’t know… We never really talked about it, even when I left the company in 2007. There was no particular meeting agenda nor peace memorandum between me and him, like what happened to the Indonesian Government and the Free Aceh Movement. At last they officially signed a peace agreement for a reconciliation on August 15, 2005; almost 8 months after the disaster. This agreement ended a nearly 30 year insurgency in Aceh.
Below are some aftermath images to bring back the memory..
And today, 10 years later, I took the time to write about it, to remember..
May all the soul taken on that day rest in peace.. You will always be remembered..
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un (انا لله وانا اليه راجعون).. Surely we belong to God and to God shall we return..
This writing is dedicated to all survivors and the people who helped them go through it all and learn to move on..