Memoir: Aceh Lon Sayang, or Aceh I Love

In as much as could possibly be learnt in a week; any mistakes, misrepresentations and omissions are purely out of my own ignorance.

Indra, our driver, is a dark, stocky guy with closely cropped hair and a swathe of white hair near the front hairline, an incongruous addition that makes him seem older and wiser than his age of 30 something. A pleasant man but quiet, never bothering to comment much on our idle chatter as he drove us back and forth from our temporary lodgings in Beurawa to our various destinations. We felt very safe under his care, seeing as he is a seasoned local used to handling various emergencies and events that has besotted Banda Aceh and its various provinces. After much prodding he ventured forth his own personal experience during the tsunami disaster in December, whereby he happened to be at his family house in Jambu Tape, close to the shoreline facing the Hindi Ocean, when the first big wave rolled in. He was swept away, but managed to somehow swim against the current to grab his younger sister. Together they swam in the water in between houses and poles and trees for what seemed like hours before hauling themselves up a roof. The experience was described not as being in a washing machine but as being in a blender, as the lower halves of their bodies were lashed repeatedly by sharp debris spiraling underwater in their own separate currents. They were the only survivors in their family.

I also met Ana, a impish three-year old girl in a camp set up in Bajak Bada, housing about 2,000 homeless people. She was among the 50 odd children who came to see what the fuss was all about as we rolled in on our MPVs, and I took extra care of passing her the sweets first from the packets that we had. It was a very embarrassing moment for me, for I never wanted to be cast in the role of the benevolent person, with numerous pairs of parental eyes casting bemused and skeptical glances at me. But it was difficult not to warm up to them as children will be children, and before long I was rolling on the ground with a dozen children climbing on top of me to see the digital screen on my camera. We were all laughing and I was actually squealing as one of them accidentally sat down heavily on my middle. It was by far the most moving part of the trip for me. What they need now is not so much food or medicine, but the small essentials such as exercise books, stationery and children's books, just basic things that are needed to carry on with life. That we brought, but I liked to believe that we also brought a bit of extra companionship to them.

On the way back to the house we passed by a burial ground where Indra pointed out that 60,000 unnamed people were buried there in a single mass grave, 3 layers deep. It was half the size of a football field, and the red and white flags of Indonesia around the perimeter flapped cheerily in the stiff breeze.

Senin, 28 Maret 2005, 23.09 WIB (Western Indonesia Time) near Nias Island

Originating deep underground, the first rumble was felt. People froze in their tracks, trying to determine whether this would just be one of those minor tremors or something much bigger.

The Aceh independence movement, or GAM, had turned every outsider into a persona non grata, even fellow Indonesians who cannot speak Acehnese. Various areas were considered unsafe to travel before the tsunami, mainly because they were considered to be the stronghold of GAM and their sympathizers. These areas would be those closest to the forests and especially higher grounds, where they can set up camp and keep watch on those living on the flatlands. This fact was brought up as we were innocently having a short discussion in a 600-year old ancient ruin one night when our host, Pak Munzil, came running up the hill to urgently call us back down to the house. Only after he calmed himself with an unfiltered cigarette did he say that it was not unusual for members of GAM to use night-vision binoculars to track movements down below, as well as to indiscriminately start firing warning shots without asking any questions.

However, the tsunami of 26th December 2004 has driven the group more or less underground for the time being, as Aceh saw a much higher traffic of foreign help coming through its airport and by sea routes. Before this people would rarely venture out after 9 o'clock at night, even in the town of Banda Aceh, and night events were practically unheard of. Now, people are zipping along in their vehicles until midnight or later, going on dates to restaurants where before courtship was mostly relegated to the parents' houses where they could be chaperoned, and we found ourselves invited to the acting governor's house one night, albeit surrounded by half-a-dozen policemen in black t-shirts and even darker moustaches. Even when everything seems normal, you are constantly reminded that things will never be the same, for right outside the house is a posko pengunsian or emergency camp spread out on a vast field.

The main worry right now is that corruption and bribery would once again rear its ugly head amidst the outpouring of help from international communities. The previous governor is now serving time in jail for abusing funds used to buy helicopters by outrageously inflating the prices and pocketing the difference. If there is any help to be given, it is best that it be in products and not monetary, and through reputable and trusted channels. We met a few students from a Malaysian islamic public institution that granted a whole semester off to their Aceh students to come back and do volunteer work, which I thought was a brilliant and compassionate move by both parties.

Senin, 28 Maret 2005, 23.15 WIB in Banda Aceh

We'd arrived from dinner at a seafood restaurant in town, where the food was plentiful and the pickings were exotic. Food, it seems, is not in such severe short supply as it was two to three months ago, although the price of everything seems to have gone up by half or doubled. Lounging around in the outside terrace of the house, we were discussing our second conservation site in Ulee Lheue, a finger of land jutting out into the sea that has lost a substantial amount of land that has sunk below sea level. Feeling tired and a bit annoyed that I'd managed to get sunburned behind my ears, I was lying on an air mattress listening to their hushed voices when there were unusually loud sounds of objects falling on the zinc roof. I jumped a bit, and as I peered into the darkness to see what was making all the commotion, I could make out the outline of huge bats circling overhead. Assuming that they were in a feeding frenzy and grabbing fruits by the clawful, thus causing the commotion, I settled back on the mattress.

It was then that I realised that the black crickets were not making their usual gedok-gedok sounds, thus making other noises of the night much more pronounced. I was just about to mention this to a student, who was lying near the foot of the mattress, when he turned around to face us in alarm and said that the plants were swaying. As we looked around us in panic, I saw that water from our drinking glasses was splashing onto the table. At this exact point Ibu Cut burst through the door and shouted the one word we were dreading to hear - earthquake!

And then the lights went out.

The Aceh people pride themselves on habitating the exact point where Islam first set foot in Indonesia, and this can be seen in the numerous mosques, mushollah and pesantren (religious schools) dotting the landscape. It is possible to encounter a mosque every 200 metres on certain stretches of road, and when the calls for prayers are aired over the loudspeakers, the air is filled with beautiful soaring voices. The people are highly schooled in the Quran, as prior to independence it was considered that normal schooling would make them infidels, hence the setting up of religious schools in every village. The one thing I observed is that they have a very strong love of education, and their thirst for knowledge is exhausting.

As we went about on our works in various sites, every second person would stop by to enquire what we were doing, and in turn would regale us with the history of the site, the building in question, as well as the complex hierarchy of family trees in the village, among other things. From the young to the old they take such pride in their heritage, and it was not unusual to hear of village people going to Malaysia and the Middle East to further their education in Islamic Studies using their own money. It takes a special breed of people to value education on top of all else.

Senin, 28 Maret 2005, 23.18 WIB in Banda Aceh

It was surprisingly quiet - none of the special effects rumble you hear in movies, only the sound of tree branches and palm fronds frantically banging against each other, a window shutter banging open, and a few distant shouts and cries of Allahu Akbar. The ground swayed horizontally, which I felt keenly as we squatted in a circle on the lawn. Looking up into the sky towards the nearest palm tree, from which peaked the face of the full moon behind its crazily swaying silhouette, I noticed how beautifully lit the sky was. All I could think of was "God save the people of Aceh" over and over and over again. To my right somebody was frantically typing a message on his handphone. He looked frightened, but I myself didn't have the energy to reach out and comfort him. As it was, I was barely holding my emotions in check, and consoling myself that I knew what I was getting myself into when I came on this trip. And then almost imperceptibly, officially three minutes after the first tremor was felt in Banda Aceh, the ground stopped moving.

The Aceh people never forget and, unfortunately, never forgive easily. That would explain why they are at this point in time, proud and very much aware of their varied heritage of Arabian, Indian and Dutch (somebody bumped into an olive-skinned guy with sky blue eyes), yet somewhat single-minded in their pursuit of what is right - be it independence, the Islamic way of living, or rebuilding their beloved Provinsi Nagore Aceh Darussalam. They provide an example of how a devoutly muslim state, existing within - and even more fundamentally Islamic than - an already strong Muslim nation, could have developed largely of its own accord. There are a large number of middle- to upper-class citizens here, with large houses and huge parabolic dishes, and an equally large number of people living in village or gampong houses.

Aceh is a paradox, surely. The clearest example of this was when we visited Lampeuk, a settlement area that faces the sea on one side but that is otherwise surrounded by low hills. As we drove into the area through a gap in the hills, all we could see was devastation all around us; rubble, concrete foundation, the top story of a brick house deposited some distance away on the ground with the words "Ya Allah, kami bertobat!" (Oh Allah, we repent!) spray-painted on it, the miraculous remains of a brick mosque in the distance with all of its domes intact, and what seemed to be a huge grassy area now filled with sand that Indra nonchalantly explained was a 9-hole golf course.

Since the big earthquake, handphones have become ridiculously cheap as landlines can no longer be relied upon. MPVs are abundant here, as they need it to access areas where there are no proper roads. Cigarettes are doing very good business here as well, including a variety that has a little bit of marijuana in it (FYI, it's called Dji Sam Soe in a black coloured box), as well as motorcycles, as can be seen from the proliferation of Honda and Suzuki banners. The internet remains prohibitively expensive here, and wages are still relatively low - what I get as a tutor in Malaysia is what somebody in the upper management of a university in Aceh would be getting. Of course the cost of living is cheaper , but certain aspects are still comparable or even more expensive than in Malaysia. But the locals never, ever complain. Electricity disrupted? Read a book, talk. There's a shortage of fuel? Take a mini bus, or a labi-labi as they call it here. Life goes on. And they're thankful for it.

Senin, 28 Maret 2005, 23.35 WIB in Banda Aceh

We stood up on shaky legs, and even though the earthquake had ceased the sheer momentum made us wobble for quite some time. The noise level had risen on the main road running in front of the house, as vehicles sped recklessly trying to reach higher ground, and we saw some motorcycles carrying four grown men wobbling dangerously at high speed, which would be comical if not for the realisation of how desperate the situation could become. Telecommunication lines were fortunately still open but hopelessly jammed as we tried to call the other house where the girls in our group were accommodated. On top of all this commotion and activity an announcement was broadcast from the nearest mosque's minaret, "It's over. We're safe for now. The water has not risen, so please, stay calm and return home. We're safe, we're safe."

There are many stories heard over and over again, but what struck me the most was how nonchalant everybody's takes are on the situation. Herd mentality, they call it. So what if you had lost your brothers and sisters in the tsunami, the next person might have lost his whole family, and the next one his children and grandchildren, and so on and so forth. There's almost no use in complaining about it, for everyone surely has felt the effect in one way or another. What has been a common thread binding each story I've heard was how the tsunami has been a blessing in disguise. Some viewed it as a way of getting rid of the unwanted and unsavoury effects of westernisation on the state, such as the constant partying that was previously held out in the open, while others viewed it as a permanent opening of doors to outsiders, where easier access to trade and tourists could be had from now on forth.

Aceh is beautiful, even amidst the ruins and sadness. The night sky is clear and the stars are beautiful, the cloud formations are amazing, the sunsets are amazing shades of pink, red, orange and violet, food is plentiful and delicious and cheap (a good breakfast can be had for RP6,000 which is less than RM3, and that's post-tsunami pricing) and the people are very, very friendly. I can't say enough for all the kind people of Aceh who have helped us on this trip, from the students who never complained, to the various hosts who fed us and reassured us that everything was okay with the world, to the people we encountered and interviewed who just could never say no to whatever it was we asked of them. They are genuinely happy to see any Malaysians here, whatever race or religion we may be. And as it turns out that my family name is not an uncommon name here in Aceh, I now feel an affinity with this place. I mean, how could I not, when we are so much alike?

Senin, 28 Maret 2005, 23.45 WIB in Banda Aceh

Somebody in our group said, "I wish we could go home tomorrow. I don't want to stay here a minute longer." Ibu Wati just looked over with a twinkle in her eyes and said, "Yes, you can leave anytime, but where are we supposed to go?" Nobody said anything, we simply looked around somewhat sheepishly at each other.