Compassion reigns in a nation struck by horror

January 14, 2005

Over four pages, The Times Higher explores the long-term impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami and examines what can be learnt from past natural disasters

After years of separatist unrest, Aceh survivors witness fellow Indonesians' compassion. Bill Watson reports

I was flying to Padang in western Sumatra from Jakarta on the day the tsunami struck Aceh. As I was boarding the plane, I glanced at a nearby television. At the bottom of the screen, a newsbar was reporting the earthquake and tsunami.

Like the Indonesians who were travelling with me, I felt an immediate pang. Here was another national disaster following closely on the heels of the two earthquakes that had struck eastern Indonesia the week before, leaving a trail of destruction to which fellow Indonesians had already begun to respond generously.

At that stage, what had happened in Aceh seemed to be something similar - a disaster, but one within the bounds of manageability. It was not until that evening that news reports began to convey the full horror of the Acehnese situation. When 2,000 deaths were first mentioned, the Indonesian casualties appeared to be fewer than those in Sri Lanka. But all too rapidly the numbers began to grow. The figure is now more than 100,000 and is expected to continue to rise.

After the first horror-struck reaction, Indonesians acted swiftly. This was not simply a question of the state declaring an emergency and providing immediate relief. Individuals and the private sector realised that the Government could not possibly cope with all the demands of the situation.

Very quickly, collection posts were set up. The banks arranged special accounts. Students took to the streets with collection baskets and people gave generously. The tradition in Indonesia is that donors' names are published in daily newspapers, and current tsunami relief lists show the depth and breadth of donations by private individuals and corporations, from substantial gifts from large companies to a modest collection by a handful of workers in a small supermarket. In addition, people have been donating clothes and medicines and responding to appeals for blood.

The generosity of overseas governments has, of course, been recognised, and visits by Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, and Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, have received much publicity. Prevailing anti-American sentiments have been forgotten in the common endeavour of trying to come to terms with the tragedy.

The implications of the disaster for the civil unrest that has plagued Aceh for the past two decades, with a determined separatist movement fighting the military, have not been forgotten. Ceasefire attempts broke down in 2003, and Jakarta opted for a military solution with all the bloody consequences that entailed.

Separatist forces are mostly located in the region's mountain jungles and so were largely unaffected by the tsunami, and there have been reports of guerrilla attacks in Banda Aceh this week. Nevertheless, there has been much speculation as to how this disaster may be turned to the country's advantage.

There has been considerable discussion about the long-term future of those areas of Aceh that have been most badly affected: Banda Aceh, the capital in the north, and Meulaboh on the northwest coast, which took the brunt of the tsunami and remained out of contact with the rest of Indonesia for several days. There are now at least some signs of the small trading markets returning to life, but it will take some time before even a minimal infrastructural capability returns.

Fortunately, Indonesians are well able to survive under difficult conditions. If the rain is not too heavy - and that is a big question since this is the rainy season - they will slowly pick themselves up, at least physically. Even if psychological scars remain, the resilience being displayed is remarkable. I visited an Acehnese friend living in Bandung as soon as I returned from Sumatra, and he told me that he had heard that all his immediate family in Banda Aceh had survived. Their house and property were gone, but, he shrugged, that was of minor significance.

There is a strong desire to return to some semblance of normality as quickly as possible, but there are numerous obstacles. The fishing community, for example, wants to get out to sea again, but no one wants to buy the fish because they fear that the bodies that were washed out to sea have been consumed by the fish. In other areas, there is a great fear that there are more tsunamis on the way. In Padang, a rumour late one night led to a massive panic as thousands of people loaded whatever vehicles they could get hold of and fled to the nearby hills, and an earthquake in northern Sumatra at the weekend sent people running for their lives.

An issue causing great concern is the fate of orphaned children. There have been generous offers to adopt children and take them from Aceh, but the Government has rightly stepped in and said that the children, as is customary throughout Indonesia in these circumstances, must be kept in Aceh where they have networks of extended kin to support them.

Their immediate physical welfare is being catered for, but there will be long-term difficulties. One newspaper headline that caught my attention starkly stated that 1,000 teachers are missing, which gives an indication of the scale of the educational needs that will somehow have to be met. The reconstruction of school buildings and the rebuilding of the educational administrative structure present an equally great set of logistical problems.

There will, however, be no lack of volunteers. Visits by senior government representatives and well-known businessmen-cum-politicians and celebrities, many of whom are from Aceh, have been well publicised. Other national figures, such as the popular young Islamic preacher Aa Gym, who brought a water purification plant to the province, have travelled to the area and pledged support.

In addition, thousands of young Indonesians have offered their services as volunteers to work with the special teams organised by local non-governmental organisations. Two public letters pasted on the board of a Bandung bookshop by volunteers who had already arrived in Aceh described the situation they found, not in a sensational way but simply to give practical advice to those whom they knew would follow them. The airport hangars were not very large, they noted; there is a limit to what can be stored; simple medicines are much in demand; distribution channels sometimes break down.

The enormity of what nature has wrought in a region long beset by bloody civil unrest has been fully recognised even by those Indonesians who have only the vaguest idea of where Aceh is. The tragedy has brought out what observers of Indonesia know exists at the heart of a nation born of a common struggle for independence: sympathy, compassion and a deep feeling of solidarity with their fellow Indonesians.

Bill Watson is professor of social anthropology and multicultural studies at Kent University.

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