Al-Arabi in Aceh and the Maldives… Tsunami… the Destructive Power of Water

'Al-Arabi' in Aceh and the Maldives… Tsunami… the Destructive Power of Water

It was an extraordinary thing that sea rage which erupted at the end of last year. Towering waves never seen before swept everything away and within minutes the scene was one of unbelievably widespread devastation.

Thus, Al-Arabi rushed to carry out this Exploration in two countries which experienced one of the greatest disasters in history. Indonesia and the Maldives.

The earth cracked and swallowed the waters of the vast ocean and was covered with fish which the poor collected without effort. All of a sudden, the first wave took people forward and made them roll, but they tried to resist. The second wave, however, didn't allow them to hold together. Within a matter of minutes the furious water had swept and destroyed everything people, houses and trees All buildings were flattened wreckage and horror everywhere Life went back to its primitive stage Genocide, but this time at the hands of water, the origin and ultimate end of life.

Initial advice

" Recite the creed before you go to bed. If the earth shakes under your feet and trees sway. If you see frightened birds or dogs trembling with fear, switch off the light and go out of the house immediately" That was the kind of advice we had to get as our visit to the region came at a time when it was still suffering from the recurrent aftershocks. Though we arrived at the epicentre less than four months after the disaster, such advice had made us careful since we reached Banda Aceh, the victim of the fatal tsunami disaster. We were of no need for a further feeling of sorrow The land that was once bustling with life now has many scattered mass graves with large spaces covered with tents for those who survived a tragedy with such an unbelievable scale.

Al-Arabi gave us the opportunity in previous years to visit areas which suffered major disasters the mass exodus from Kosovo mass graves and "holocaust" in Kurdistan and Halabja the tragedies in Algeria the destructive war in the Horn of Africa however, what we saw in Banda Aceh was unimaginable. Horror was clearly seen on people's faces and in their behaviour and even in their smiles. The moment we arrived, we felt we were at an open exhibition of dead bodies in three mass graves, and feeble living bodies filled with absolute horror following the most dreadful disaster by all standards.

Who believes this? Who believes that more than 228,000 people in Aceh alone (out of a population of 400,000 last December) were killed in a matter of thirty minutes? Who believes that 100,000 of the dead were lost or decomposed under the wreckage? It was the force of the towering waves that swept half of the town and flattered it in an incredible manner. Who believes that such a human tragedy could happen in our age, with all its scientific and technological advances, failed to predict such a massive earthquake?

Total loss

Omran bin Ali a purely Arab name; however, he is not an Arab, he doesn't know even a single word of Arabic, and hasn't been out of Lock Lunga, which belongs to Greater Aceh. He doesn't believe what happened to him, either. We went into his tent, one of tens of thousands for the homeless who are packed there. Every family among the tent-dwellers lost at least one of its members. The same is true of the residents of the city of Aceh.

He said this before he broke down in tears: "I feel as if I had died then were reborn, but my elder three children died and only the youngest survived. I don't know how. I found him by chance a week later. It we had died that wouldn't have been strange; all those we know died. What is strange is that we survived".

He went on explaining how waves hit the area, causing considerable damage and significant loss of life. Three thousand, five hundred people died in that area, and all buildings were destroyed, except a small blue-domed white mosque called "Rahmatullah" (God's mercy), in which the 500 survivors took shelter. (A photo of this mosque was published by AFP).

House and hours

It took us four hours to go from the island of Java to Sumatra. We flew Garuda (Indonesian Airlines) from Jakarta airport to Aceh, with an hour's transit at the town of Medan, the island's capital. Through the plane window we saw the famous mountain range of Barisan, consisting of a chain of volcanic tops along the south-western coast. These tops are said to be as high as 3660m above sea level in some places. At the small Banda Ache airport, named after Iskandar Moda, its ruler in ancient times, there were a few helicopters. There were no arrival formalities, as if it had been a domestic flight. We went out of the airport to see a poster with "Assalumu Alaikum" (peace be upon you) in Arabic written on it. We went by a car of the headquarters of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) to the site of the disaster on a banana and coconut tree lined road. It was a long journey which gave us a first impression that everything was normal and talk about the damage and loss caused by the tsunami was exaggerated. When we reached the city centre, life seemed to be going on normally, with people doing their daily activities. Our first look at the city made us all but forget that we went there to give an account of that terrible disaster which the whole world watched and which resulted from one of the five severest earthquakes the world has seen in the last hundred years.

Al-Arabi had sent us specifically to that area which witnessed the most appalling human tragedy which took the lives of the majority of nearly 282,000 people killed in this unprecedented disaster which hit eleven countries at the end of last year.

We came to see what nature had done to humans, what water can do when it suddenly turns onto a merciless monster. We saw scattered piles of wood, broken beds and ware, torn clothes, stagnant ponds, the smell of death, deep misery on the faces of all the people we met.

Unbelievable damage was done to Banda Aceh, that old city along the waterfront, whose royal palaces and baths reflected its rich heritage. Has all that been really damaged? Has such a history, which gave its people a unique identity and fuelled their suspicion of the central government, been wiped out? I wonder what the remains of the sultanate are an independent sultanate that existed until the seventeenth century before the Dutch invaded it in the nineteenth century and Indonesia annexed it in the twentieth century.

We suddenly found ourselves in front of an 80m-long 10,000-ton ship (Pltdapung 1) amid the damage, under which were broken house concrete columns. I looked at the sea which is about one kilometre far. The survivors talked about the giant waves which ran the ship aground from a depth of one kilometre to a height of 12m and threw it onto the area.

That was only one of many similar stories told by the people who took shelter in Baitulrahman Mosque, the largest in the town, situated 3.5 km from the sea, dating back over 350 years. People filled the mosque after the second wave as the water reached its first step only. They lived there a few days until they felt safe to leave it. The mosque was built by Iskandar Moda, the most famous of Aceh's sultans, who ruled the area from 1607 to 1636. Despite the magnitude of the earthquake, the mosque remained intact, as did many other buildings in that historical city, while many houses and buildings over two centuries old collapsed, as did Aceh Bazaar, the town's traditional market.

Aceh's people openly boast that mosques were not affected; however, in the meantime they said that the town's three churches were only slightly damaged.

People's talk about the disaster came along with their pride in the fact that mosques and mausoleums remained intact. That didn't sound strange to us, as the population of the region before the earthquake and aftershocks was four million, 99% of whom Muslims. Situated to the north west of the island of Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, this region was the bridge over which Islam entered south-east Asia in the thirteenth century at the hands of Muslim merchants from India and Arabia. Islam spread gradually among the people of Indonesia and gathered momentum following its adoption by the "Good King" one of Aceh's rulers. Banda Aceh's port is still the assembly point for pilgrims leaving for Mecca and Medina by sea, a large number of whom were swept by the tidal waves while in ihram clothes waiting for departure.

Later, we visited this severely-damaged port, called "Oli Lahw", at which ships of the Dutch invaders anchored in the nineteenth century. Aceh, whose residents still call it "the Terrace of Mecca", has recently acquired a special status, as it is the only region in Indonesia where Islamic Sharia law is applied, despite the continuing bloody confrontations since 1976 between the Indonesia army and the Aceh Free Movement insurgents who have a government and prime minister (in exile) currently based in Sweden and who call for the full adoption of Islamic Sharia. The region was closed to foreigners before the tsunami, following which it was opened to all those with good intentions to offer aid, and those with bad ones. The earthquake destroyed the first belt of the residential areas supporting the insurgents and killed many of them. The survivors took refuge in intensive jungles behind the mountains and still demand that the region be given a special status. The demand has been growing since gas was discovered in huge amounts in that region whose residents live in abject poverty.

A story of fear

After a short time, the tidal waves subsided, having filled the survivors with absolute horror, as indicated by the huge number of psychiatrists recruited by the Indonesian government. The mere sight of a glass full of water was likely to recreate the scenes of horror. People were even afraid to go into sound sleep which was disturbed by the many recurrent aftershocks. Many people we met said that when the Indonesian island of Nias was hit by an earthquake in December 2005, Aceh's residents ran away to mountaintops, even though the distance between the island and Ache is 800 km.

The sense of fear among the people was overdone, but don't forget that Ache, or rather all Indonesia indeed, is located in a zone with some of the most active volcanoes in the world. The number of semi-active volcanoes in Indonesia is 128 spread over 17,000 islands. The known number of volcano mouths is 400. the people are aware of all that, but what can they do with nature which gave them all such land wealth which is of no use to them so far, and instead filled them with unabated fear which coincides with renewed fighting between the separatists and government forces.

The story of Azour

Thirty-year-old Muhammad, who studied at Al-Azhar, accompanied us when he knew that we are from Al-Arabi, which he knew well during the years he spent in Cairo.

Twenty days before the disaster he went from Jakarta, where he worked as a teacher at a religious school, to Aceh, his home town, to see his sick mother. Everything was normal one day before the disaster, but the morning of 26 December was different. At 8 a.m. he was eating breakfast with some friends in a café when he first felt a slight tremor, then a severe one. They wanted to go out of the café, but they fell on the ground. They heard the growing sound of explosions coming out of the centre of the earth. Trees were shaken violently. They thought that was Doomsday. They recited the creed, repeating "there is no God but Allah", reciting the opening chapter (sura) of the Holy Quran. His elder brother carried women and children in his pickup truck to Aceh airport, a safe place because it is in an elevated position. Most of the survivors were those who managed to go there or to any other higher areas, or those who went on the road to Medan, the fourth largest city in Indonesia, after Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung.

Azour said the waves travelled four kilometres into the city and when they subsided the survivors went in search of their relatives. The search continued for two weeks. The dead were buried in 4,000-body mass graces. The other dead were buried where they were found. Some bodies decomposed. He added he buried some corpses himself.

Questions posed by the disaster

The scorched earth we saw made us ask why Aceh witnessed such a heavy loss of life and such damage that was compared to that caused by an atomic bomb, even though the epicentre of the earthquake was 60 km from the town of Mulabu, which in turn is 241 km from Aceh. The reason is attributed to the huge population of Aceh and the many houses located near the sea. Eighty per cent of Mulabu was damaged, but the number of victims was much less than in Aech.

However, this unprecedented catastrophe still poses further questions: what caused all such an extent of damage? What did a number of faraway counties fail to avert the damage? The earthquake hit the Indonesian archipelago, 9-12 hours after which the tsunami reached the shores of those countries, a sufficient period to take precautionary measures. The disaster revealed the absence of earthquake prediction centres in the earthquake zone along the coast of the Indian and the Pacific oceans. No warning was given to the eleven tsunami-stricken countries, even to Somalia, whose coast is about 4,000 miles from the epicentre.

What happened was an extraordinary event that inflicted damage on the countries it hit and eventually accelerated the turning of the earth round its axis, shortened days by a fraction of a second, shook the island of Sumatra, even wiped out eleven islands, and displaced a number of small islands as far as 20m south west. The magnitude of that devastating earthquake was equivalent to that of 175 nuclear bombs, as indicated by a recent study of the Turkish Geophysical Research Centre, which affirmed that the epicentre of the earthquake was, luckily, 40 km deep into the Indian Ocean.

This may shed some light on the earthquake that hit the Indonesian island of Nias with a death toll reaching ten thousand, though it measured 8.7 on the Richter scale, which was close to that of the December 2004 earthquake, which measured 8.9 and caused such a heavy loss of life in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sir Lanka, the Maldives, Malaysia, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Bangladesh and Yemen. However, the Nias earthquake, whose circumstances were similar to the earlier one, did not cause a tsunami, something ascribed by some to the fact that its epicentre was much deeper into the sea than the December earthquake.

Endless Stories

All that remained after the disaster were the tragic stories told by the people we met whom we asked to remember. They first burst into tears, then told their stories in Bahasa, the only language spoken by most people. We requested our interpreter to be patient with those miserable people living in the midst of wreckage, loss and an uncertain future.

And in the Maldives

The Maldives had their share of the tsunami rage too. This country has always been looked at with fear as being threatened with submersion by flood waters in the event of rising sea level due to global warming. But tsunami had a different view. In the morning it struck all the island in two waves, in the second of which they were completely swept. Damage was soon widespread. Tourist resorts fell by the force of water. Huts and buildings were flattened in some places. Eighty two people died and 32 were missing. Sixty nine out of the 197 inhabited islands were totally destroyed; 53 partly.

Suddenly tourism came to a standstill. The number of tourists fell sharply, despite the fact that some islands were slightly or not hit at all, only flooded with water which subsided shortly afterwards. The capital Male was not affected at all. Flood waters 1.25m high covered its streets and caused minor damage, then subsided.

However, the Maldives are among the hardest hit countries and the cost of reconstruction is believed to be the highest in view of the severe damage to the infrastructure of that country which had been the most prosperous in south-East Asia. According to international figures we received from the Tsunami National Centre based in central Male, an estimated 300,000 people were hit by the disaster and 12,000 were made homeless.

Another scene

We reached the Maldives after an exhausting flight with transit stops at Singapore and Colombo airports. We wanted to watch the damage done to these islands. The scene was different as some time had passed since the awful disaster. Some islands were still suffering, and reconstruction efforts will continue for many years to come, and according to the government's estimates will cost about $ 420m up to the end of the current year. The plane landed at the airport which covers the whole of the island of Haluli which was flooded and navigation stopped for days. We reached the capital after a ten-minute trip by boat, during which the town with its hotels and few high-rise buildings appeared at a distance.

The Maldives, including the islands of Mulako and Faadhippoohu, were not safe from the tsunami either. But shorty following the disaster, many countries offered aid to ease the effects of the damage. Once again Kuwait gave a generous hand to the Maldives this time as it was right from the start. The Kuwait Fund far Arab Economic Development gave the Maldives a ten-year $ 10m loan for the construction of airports and other infrastructure projects.

We went around the capital, which is a very small town. We started from a point on the waterfront and returned to the same place after an hour and a quarter. Then we walked along the central street for 20 minutes during which we passed by the fish market where tuna is the main yield. It is the main meal with a variety of dishes made from it. Tuna and tourism are the main sources of the country's foreign exchange and national income.

Male is inhabited by its permanent residents only and is occasionally visited by a few tourists. However, the town is overcrowded, as a third of the country's 300,000 population live there, which led the government to prepare another nearby island to accommodate the expected increase.

The country consists of a large number of islands (1190 according to official estimates). They are scattered here and there in small chains and are divided into 26 governorates covering a group of islands not exceeding five square miles each. The islands are freshly cleaned with sea water, covered with dark green spaces and surrounded by clear sky-blue sea forming what Ibn Battuta a called one of the wonders of the world and what the Sinbad traveller Dr Hussein Fawzi called "God's paradise on earth".

There were deep fears that the huge tidal waves had destroyed coral reefs, another of the country's sources of wealth, but a nine-member Australian damage assessment team reported that the damage was not enormous and the tidal waves had no adverse effect on coral life and fish used as bait. Tourism was the hardest hit and the sector which suffered real losses. The figures given in a World Bank report are horrible: as much as $ 100m loss, accounting for nearly two thirds of the country's GNP. Education fishing and transport also suffered heavy losses. Alistair Mcinky, the World Bank's regional director, believes that the tsunami disaster hit all parts of the country, and though the total loss of life there was less than that in the other tsunami-hit countries, the Maldives were one of the hardest hit in terms of havoc to property. The ten main islands were destroyed, in addition to 14 islands which were evacuated, and nearly a third of the population were seriously affected. Waves with a height of 4-14 feet hit all parts of the communications lines on most of the islands.

Sympathetic hands

In their headquarters five minutes from Banda Aceh airport, KRCS volunteers were at pains to make arrangements far operating the dynamos which were due to arrive shortly. Our arrival coincided with the arrival of successive flights from Kuwait carrying relief supplies to the island of Nias which had just survived a massive earthquake in March 2005, only three months after the tsunami disaster. Khalid Al-Ghais, KRCS Youth Committee rapporteur and his colleague Khalid Al-Otaiby, flew daily from Jakarta to Nias with the supplies and their colleague Jassim Qambar, the logistics assistant, had just come back to Aceh after handing a number of boats donated by Kuwait to fishermen in an area near the sea and was due to go to the port to receive desalination plants donated by Kuwait to the people of Aceh.

Kuwait's response to the awful disaster was very strong. The cabinet decided to contribute $ 100m, $30m in cash, and the rest ($ 70m) for infrastructure projects in the affected countries to be undertaken by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development. Another $ 5m was donated by His Highness the Crown Prince and $ 1m by His Highness the Prime Minister, in addition to a fund-raising and relief campaign at official and popular levels. In the meantime, the Kuwaiti government charged KRCS with the task of securing the delivery of aid and relief supplies and medicines to the affected area as quickly as possible. KRCS teams immediately carried out a comprehensive survey of the affected countries Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and the Maldives. Kuwait was the only Arab and Gulf country to send s highly skilled and trained emergency team for assistance in relief, accommodation, damage assessment, aid distribution, wreckage clearance, searching for survivors and body recovery and burial.

Indonesia, which was the hardest hit by the disaster, received the largest share of KRCS aid through field trips to the affected areas which were extremely difficult because of the damage done to coastal roads. Kuwait's relief and aid efforts were not restricted to relief supplies, food, tents and basic necessities but also included long-term reconstruction works. Kuwait's ambassador to Indonesia, Muhammad Fadel Khalaf said that Kuwait's aid work went through three stages: First, emergency, during which emphasis was on food and basic supplies. Kuwait contributed $ 500,00 to a relief fund set up by Indonesia, thus being the biggest donor. Second the rehabilitation stage, during which KRCS helped the residents of Aceh and other areas to be self-dependent and rebuild their damaged areas. Third, the reconstruction stage, in which the Kuwait Fund will take part in addition to the Kuwait Joint Relief Commission.

In this context, up to last March KRCS purchased 56 heavy machinery for building three desalination plants with a capacity of 250,000 litres of water daily each in addition to ten trucks and 150 five-fisherman fishing boats, which will secure livelihood for about 750 families. Moreover, Zainulabeddin Hospital in Aceh was supplied was medical and other specialized equipment and generators. When another earthquake hit the island of Nias, KRCS rushed in huge quantities of relief supplies in an airlift operation. Relief efforts continue for the victims on the islands of Nias and Aceh which are predominantly Christian and Muslim respectively. In the meantime, KRCS played a key role in rescue, search and relief operations for the disaster victims in India, and Thailand (which has recently received an early warning system), Sri Lanka and other affected countries. Nature was ferocious this time, not letting the poor suffer further in a lifetime of unremitting toil, or the rich enjoy relaxation in Phuket's resort in Thailand. Both had one thing in common: huge waves, causing loss and grief.

Everything was destroyed by the towering waves in a matter of less than half an hour. The achievements of civilization, grief and happiness, pleasure and suffering all came to an end in the face of the powerful force of the waves. It is a painful lesson to those who thought they were in control of everything in life. This time the lesson took a heavy toll on the most vulnerable, as usual.

The Kuwait Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Sabah speaking to Al-Arabi:

of Kuwait's aid for reconstruction of the infrastructure in the damage area.

The Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Sabah said the aid supplies which Kuwait offered to the countries hit by the earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the subsequent tidal waves stem from the Kuwaitis' spirit of assistance to victims, regardless of nationality or race.

In an exclusive statement to Al-Arabi during his stay in Jalarta to attend the Afro-Asian summit marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Bandung Conference, the Minister added in answer to a question by Al-Arabi's mission about Kuwait's aid to the affected countries: "The Kuwaiti cabinet has allocated $ 100m as donation to the affected countries, part of which ($ 30m) to save the lives of the tsunami victims, ease their suffering and offer emergency supplies, food and medicines, with the rest ($ 70m) for reconstruction efforts, infrastructure projects and establishing an economic base in those countries".

The Kuwait government believed that the matter was like a fisherman whose fishing rod was broken, and at first he should be given some fish to eat, but later he should be given another rod to help him resume his activity.

In addition to the $ 100m donated by the government, there were:

  • $ 5m from His Highness the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
  • $ 2m from His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah.
  • $ 1m from His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

The death toll of the tsunami disaster

Following is the number of people reported dead or missing in each of the affected countries:

  • Indonesia : 228429 (including 132197 missing)
  • Sri Lanka : 30957
  • India : 16413 (including 5339 missing)
  • Thailand : 5384
  • Somalia : 298
  • The Maldives : 82
  • Malaysia : 68
  • Burma : 61
  • Tanzania : 10
  • Bangladesh : 2
  • Kenya : 1

Grand total : 281705

Other tsunami disasters

  • Among the most well-known tsunami disasters is the one which hit East Alwissan island on 1/4/1946 which reached a height of 35 metres, killing 165 people.
  • Nicaragua (2/9/1992) attained a height of 10 metres; 170 deaths.
  • Okushiri (Japan) (7/12/1993): height 31 metres; 239 deaths.
  • Papua New Guinea (17/7/1998): height 15 metres; 2200 deaths.


Zakaria Abduljawad


A scene of devastation

At the market in the city centre. What can the survivors of the disaster do but continue living!

The damage inflicted on the Lock Lunga area near the Indian Ocean causing great loss of life and property. Only a look of grief and sorrow through the helicopter window

The damage inflicted on the Lock Lunga area near the Indian Ocean causing great loss of life and property. Only a look of grief and sorrow through the helicopter window

The damage inflicted on the Lock Lunga area near the Indian Ocean causing great loss of life and property. Only a look of grief and sorrow through the helicopter window

The Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Sabah

All that remained following the huge tidal wave … wasteland and ruins.

A map showing the epicentre of the earthquake and the affected countries.

A 10,000 – ton, 80m – long ship anchored one kilometre off the coast to supply the town of Aceh with electricity was run aground by the giant waves and thrown among the houses

Nothing but remains … scattered wreckage by the shore … Rocks and a solitary coconut tree that probably helped save the lives of some survivors

Tents eventually served as makeshift shelters for those whose lives were destroyed by the tsunami. This is how Banda Aceh looked: a town crowded with shelters for human beings

Rescue workers are still clearing the wreckage, a process that may continue for a long time

She remained alone in this place, having lost her family and the future but not hope

The sea mixed with land within a few horrible hours. The towering waves struck fishing boats and ran them aground where there is no seafaring fisherman or fish

Another scene of the ship which the waves turned into a dummy … another wonder which Aceh witnessed

Another ship hit by the waves, but the survivors used a part of it as a market for selling water and soft drinks

As fishing is the profession of most of the area's residents, the Kuwait Red Crescent Society decided to distribute fishing boats to help them continue living and working

This is how Male, the capital of the Maldives, looked, having survived the tsunami disaster

The flood waters reached a height of a metre in the Maldivian capital. All of a sudden the waters broke into people's homes and carried them and their belongings before subsiding

Al-Jumaa (Friday) Mosque prayer room was covered with water without suffering any damage

Two survivors of the disaster look to the future in the hope that it will emerge out of the wreckage. Behind them is one of the thousands of ships which ran aground by the force of the waves and were thrown on a number of houses

Relief supplies were rushed by Kuwait to the disaster victims. Relief efforts continued at first, and reconstruction of the infrastructure is currently under way besides aid to the survivors

The headquarters of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society in Aceh

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