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Eleven years after a tsunami struck the city of Banda Aceh on Dec. 26, 2004, killing 167,000 people, roads and bridges have been rebuilt, there are houses on the beach, trees have grown back and the millions of tons of debris that covered the island are gone. But reminders of the disaster seem to be everywhere. A sculpture of a giant wave marks Lambaro, one of four mass grave sites, where 46,000 bodies are buried. A hotel front desk displays a photo of smashed boats filling its parking lot. The dome from a mosque 1½ km away rests in an emerald-green rice field.
Water streams down the cavelike walls of the Tsunami Museum, which serves as both a memorial and evacuation site, with a knoll on high ground offering refuge in case another tsunami strikes. The center of the museum is an atrium that rises above a park, decorated with the word “Peace” and the flags of countries that provided assistance. Exhibits explain how the community worked together to rebuild, and how the formerly embattled province even found ways to make peace after the disaster, with rebels in a long and bloody separatist fight signing a deal with the central government. Although Banda Aceh suffered the worst destruction and death, the tsunami struck 14 countries, including Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, killing almost 230,000 people and displacing more than 1.7 million others. Citizens from 38 other countries, mostly European, also lost their lives, including 500 each from Germany and Sweden.
Only three natural disasters in the last century have killed more people: More than 1 million people died in flooding in China in 1931; a cyclone left more than 300,000 dead in Bangladesh in 1970; and an earthquake in China killed at least 255,000 people in 1976. Almost everyone in Banda Aceh has a story to share.
Dara Umarra and her neighbors have in their yards two wrecked boats that came to rest there after the storm. Visitors can climb in one boat, but it is tilted at a steep angle. Visitors can’t position themselves squarely on the ladder, and as they dangle from the rungs, they must wonder what it was like trying to cling to anything stable to survive the waves. A massive 2,500-ton steel barge that housed a floating diesel power generator, the Apung 1, was carried 5 km inland. Walkways and five flights of stairs leading to a viewing tower allow visitors to appreciate its sheer bulk. A monument outside the barge honors victims from the immediate area. A copper-colored sculpture, symbolizing the height and color of the massive waves, surrounds a clock tower where time stopped still just before 8 a.m., when the earthquake struck, unleashing the tsunami.
One of the most visited sites is a long fishing boat that crashed on top of a house. A ramp leads to the roof, and you can also walk underneath where it is wedged between two dwellings. The boat provided a refuge for 56 survivors. Some memorials include photo galleries of the destruction and recovery. They do not attempt to sanitize. Mixed in with photos of debris and rebuilding are graphic images of human suffering. The Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, with its 35-meter minaret, pearly white walls and seven majestic black domes, survived the tsunami largely unscathed, with hundreds of locals taking refuge there. Visitors can wander through the mosque’s pillars and admire the chandeliers, marble floors and architecture. It is beautifully lit at night, and Friday prayers offer a colorful experience. The province has implemented a version of Shariah law, and visitors to the mosque must cover up. Sarongs can be borrowed by those who come unprepared.
While residents tolerate tourists in shorts elsewhere, modest clothing covering legs and shoulders is more socially acceptable. Local women are veiled and dress conservatively. Lumpuuk, a few kilometers to the south of Banda Aceh, is known for its beaches, but if you are planning on swimming in a bikini, it is best to stick to the area near the cliff-side bungalows where most of the tourists congregate.
A short ferry ride from Banda Aceh to the north is the island of Pulah Weh, or Sabang. It is legendary among in-the-know divers, while nondivers can enjoy snorkeling, fishing, hiking and views from hotel balconies. Prices are moderate by Western standards: A spacious upscale bungalow with water view at Casa Nemo is less than $40 a night.
The nicest beach near the port is Sumur Tiga, about 20 minutes away, and much of the island is ringed by easily accessible coral reefs. The closest thing to a typical beach town is Ipoih, an hour from port. Shariah law bans alcohol, but some restaurants and beach hotels geared toward tourists quietly sell beer.
Organized tourist activities, such as water excursions, come to a halt Friday mornings for the Muslim holy day. While all the tsunami sites are somber reminders of one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, visitors cannot help but feel Aceh’s resilience.
A multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort, widely considered a success, has left the province in many ways better off than others in Indonesia, which remains a poor country despite sustained economic growth over the last 10 years. A huge tower inside the museum is engraved with just a few names of the dead, but the dark funnel reaches up to the bright sky. A decade after the Indonesian tsunami, a devastated city rebuilds. What can rehousing initiatives teach us about the ongoing struggle for urban resilience?
Few disasters can compare to the devastation caused by the tsunami that struck the north coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004. After a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean, immense waves — some thirty meters high 1 — swept through the Indonesian province of Aceh, leaving at least 163,000 people dead or missing, including 60,000 in the capital, Banda Aceh. 2 It was the largest sudden loss of urban life in a generation — in fact, one of the largest in modern history. 3 More than 60 percent of Banda Aceh’s buildings were destroyed; entire coastal communities were swept away. In many villages, the vast majority of residents were killed, survivors left homeless, and children orphaned. Aid agencies estimated that 90,000 housing units would need to be replaced. Along the coast, some 70 square kilometers were left barren. Throughout this ruined terrain of mud, salt, and erosion, verifiable evidence of land tenure disappeared, as legal documents were lost and the tsunami’s power obliterated even “natural [boundary] markers like trees and footpaths.”
Almost as staggering as the loss of life and livelihood was the challenge of rebuilding Banda Aceh from the ground up. In the months and years that followed, a rush of international aid — a wave of more than 500 groups that some have called the “second tsunami” — transformed the physical, cultural, and political landscape. That wave has since receded, leaving 140,000 new houses, 1,700 schools, nearly 1,000 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports, and 3,700 kilometers of roads, funded by $12 billion in foreign support.
Eleven years later, the world has turned its attention to other problems, leaving Banda Aceh all but forgotten. One local report states bluntly, “Since 2009, no assistance has been available from donors,” before offering this reassuring conclusion: “Aceh has, to a large extent, returned to normal.” But what can “normal” mean in these circumstances? How does “recovery” begin and when does it end? When does post-disaster planning give way to the everyday challenge of managing a city? We visited Banda Aceh this past summer to study how rehousing initiatives have fared. How well did planners anticipate the problems of reconstruction?
Banda Aceh is a low-rise metropolis with a quarter million residents living along the delta of the Aceh River. The spare skyline has changed in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. The domes and minarets of the mosques are interspersed with multi-story hotels — built to accommodate aid workers and visiting donors but now used by tourists — and eight “escape buildings” that loom over the coastal landscape. A novel architectural type, the escape building is essentially a form of man-made high ground — a series of landings connected by a reinforced-concrete ramp designed for vertical evacuation of about 15 meters. In less desperate times, the buildings serve as community centers. One escape building in Banda Aceh is home to the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, and another to the imposing Tsunami Museum. Housing memories of disaster, the museum simultaneously provides the means to escape a future one.
In Banda Aceh and the surrounding communities, we found conflicting signs of a recovery that is remarkably widespread and sustained, but also partial and contested. While the international organizations that funded much of the recovery tend to focus on measurable outputs suited to their financial investment and the limited timeframe of their commitment, residents on the ground have taken a broader view. They understand that true “recovery” is impossible, but that does not deter them from moving ahead with the day-to-day tasks of rebuilding lives and communities. If recovery has succeeded in Banda Aceh, it is largely because political leaders and residents have defined the process broadly, on their own terms. Rather than focusing solely on reconstructing the physical city, or recharging the economy, or attending to the emotional needs of traumatized survivors, they have viewed recovery through multiple lenses. Housing recovery cannot be defined with simple metrics like the number of new units constructed.
Jackie Chan Village: Inland Isolation
An imposing gateway spans the only road into the resettlement community known officially as the Indonesia-China Friendship Village, dedicated in 2007. More commonly it is known as “Jackie Chan Village,” after the Hong Kong movie star who made a donation and paid a brief visit. Located 300 meters above sea level and 1.5 kilometers inland, with expansive views of the ocean, the village elevates residents above the reach of any future wave. The BRR gave free houses to former homeowners displaced by the tsunami, as well as some former renters. A Chinese contractor built 606 houses, mostly single family homes with yellow concrete walls and maroon metal roofs. Residents pay a modest charge for water and a share of electricity for the pump, equivalent to about $2.50 per month. Shared amenities include a kindergarten building, a village clinic, and a large covered concrete slab to accommodate an open market that, unfortunately, has never functioned properly.
When it opened, the resettlement village rehoused some 2,400 people, an unusually diverse community that included about 100 Chinese households, as well as Acehnese, mixed Acehnese-Javanese, and other ethnicities. Village Chief Wahid (who also oversees six other villages) views Jackie Chan as a “unique place” that brings together people of different faiths to create a “peaceful little community.” Since the BRR selected residents from different areas and backgrounds, no one group dominates the community government. “If only two or three different villages had been represented, they might compete over heads of neighborhoods,” Wahid said. “It is better to have no dominant village. … This is why Jackie Chan Village works.”
Eleven years on, the village residents and city officials we met struck a uniformly pragmatic tone. They recounted staggering losses with sobering calm. But the tsunami and the recovery have also provoked a sustained reflection about gains and losses among those who now contemplate the region’s future. Dr. Khairul Munadi, head of TDMRC, went so far as to suggest profound ambivalence about the tsunami’s impact: “On one side, it’s a disaster. On the other side, [it’s] a blessing.” That it is possible to see the tsunami as a blessing is a mark of just how troubled Banda Aceh was before catastrophe struck. But it also says something about how residents have responded to disaster by actively defining and redefining their own recovery. The process of rehousing Banda Aceh is but one vector of that recovery — a window into the ongoing struggle for urban resilience.