The devastating tsunami of December 2004 left Banda Aceh a wasteland, a hellish landscape of debris. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives. But fast-forward nine years and the city is unrecognisable. Rebuilt with billions of dollars of aid, entire neighbourhoods have risen from the ruins. Our reporters Catherine Norris-Trent and James André went to meet some of the people who have been putting the disaster behind them.
Touching down in Banda Aceh this December, my first impression was just how pleasant the city looked. Colourful, bustling and lush with greenery, Banda Aceh is almost completely unrecognisable from the hellish disaster zone of 2004. The reconstruction effort is impressive: around 130,000 new homes have been built in the past 9 years. Almost no trace of the tsunami remains apart from at a few designated memorial sites.
Our fixer Taufik greeted us with a huge smile - a warmth and kindness we encountered in all of those we interviewed. People here have lived through a great tragedy, and they’re both resilient and open-minded. It’s clear a large number of foreign NGOs have spent time here. Banda Aceh residents are tolerant of Westerners and their English is littered with voluntary sector jargon (“capacity building” and “stakeholder participation”).
To delve into this reborn Banda Aceh, we headed out to film in an entirely new neighbourhood known by everyone locally as “Jackie Chan Hill” because it was funded by donations from the Kung Fu star and other Hong Kong studio actors. There we met 21-year-old Reisha and her family, who were among the first to move in. The family was relatively lucky – they all managed to run and escape from the tsunami, although their home and all their belongings were washed away.
Today, the family is working hard to keep on improving its lot. Reisha works in a car salesroom, studying English at university at the weekends. She even surfs in her rare spare time, and is the epitome of the new, optimistic Banda Aceh generation.
But despite all the positives, it’s also clear that extremely painful memories of the tsunami remain, buried just below the surface. Everyone in Banda Aceh has a harrowing survival story; and every single time we interviewed someone about the terrible events of December 2004, their eyes welled up, tears not far away.
The disaster has had a profound impact on Banda Aceh society. Strikingly, it’s made religion an even deeper part of Banda Aceh life. This province was already known as the “Veranda of Mecca” and it’s often reported that Islam first entered Indonesia here. Sharia law was introduced just before the tsunami, but since then it’s been taken ever more seriously. Special patrols of Sharia police drive around the city, making sure women are veiled, men are attending mosque and that there’s no drinking, gambling or adultery. Most people here will tell you they fervently believe the tsunami was a warning or a test sent by Allah, a sign they should adhere ever more strictly to the codes of Islam.
Nine years after the tsunami, Banda Aceh seems to be a city at a crossroads. It’s gradually opened up to the outside world after being a virtual no-go zone during decades of civil war. International companies, especially from big Asian economies, are investing here now. But while this modernity continues to encroach, Banda Aceh remains very much tied to its traditions and the tragedy of its recent past.