- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2014

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Lina Herlina was 19 years old when the massive coffee-colored wall of water came grinding up from the sea to wipe scores of houses and buildings clean off their foundations and kill more than half of this city’s population in a matter of minutes.

“There were about 70 houses in this village,” she said. “After the tsunami, there were only 20 left standing.”

Ten years since the wave struck on Dec. 26, 2004, the recovery from that day of almost unimaginable horror has been incredible. Thousands of new houses have been built, new bridges constructed, a grid of washed-out roads paved over, and a once-raging armed conflict has ended.

But misery and loss still loom large in the imaginations and memories of those who suffered through one of the worst natural disasters in human history — an event that left more than 230,000 people dead in 14 countries and caused an estimated $10 billion damage.

Some 130,000 were killed in Banda Aceh, home to an official tsunami museum, as well as a sculpture of a giant wave marking one of four mass graves on the outskirts of town. But perhaps the most visceral reminder is a hulking, 2,500-ton steel barge that was carried some two miles inland to where it now rests as a well-manicured tourist attraction.

Ms. Herlina, who survived 10 years ago by clinging to wreckage until she was pulled from the water to safety, gives tours of the barge. On a warm day this fall, she stood aboard its viewing deck, which commands a panoramic view of the emerging new village below — a patchwork of dozens of colorful cement houses peppering clean but still largely vacant lots.

Ms. Herlina pointed to a cluster of trees lining one of the streets. “These all grew in just 10 years,” she said.

Like so much in Banda Aceh, the trees are a testament to the resiliency of the place. Cars and motorbikes now clog traffic circles. New construction lines nearly every road, financed by aid that streamed in from across the world during the years immediately following the disaster.

Dozens of new yellow houses dotting a hillside on the city’s outskirts were financed by Chinese charities. The airport is international and modern, having undergone a vast renovation that included a new runway capable of receiving wide-body jetliners.

There is even a Pizza Hut and a KFC on a street downtown, strange vestiges of the presence of thousands of American aid workers who flowed through during the mid-2000s.

Banda Aceh has a special place in the emerging, Western-style democracy that has been taking hold since the late-1990s in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

But, despite all the newness, there is still a feel in the city of a distant and old-world outpost in an equally remote corner of the globe. And its politics are complex — to say the least.

Before the tsunami hit, the oil- and gas-rich province of Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island knew almost nothing but slow-burning guerrilla war. For more than 100 years, the region’s residents fought for independence and for a fair share of the natural resource wealth being extracted by outside powers.

First they fought would-be Dutch colonists, then against the Japanese and finally against Indonesia’s central government. War between Aceh’s rebels and the Indonesian military killed some 15,000 people during the late 20th century and was marked by accusations of gross human rights abuses on both sides.

The early 2000s were accompanied by more complications, when Indonesia’s government offered a degree of autonomy to the rebels but also began imposing Islamic Shariah law over Aceh. Many believe the move was an attempt by Jakarta to delegitimize the rebels — to align them with Islamic extremism after 9/11, with the goal of discouraging foreign nations from supporting them.

It was never clear whether it worked. A tense and ambiguous peace hung over Banda Aceh when the tsunami roared ashore in 2004.

A massive undersea megathrust earthquake had struck just off Sumatra’s western coast. The violent and sudden vertical rise of the seabed displaced a huge volume of water. Scientists say it actually triggered more than a dozen tsunamilike waves that then rolled over coastal towns and villages along opposite sides of the Indian Ocean, from as far away as East Africa to Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Banda Aceh was the city closest to the epicenter. As the water moved inland, it became laden with large chunks of steel, concrete and wood from buildings and houses crushed along the way.

The destruction it left behind seemed biblical. A reporter with The Washington Times, who visited the scene days after the tsunami hit and returned again in September as part of a reporting trip organized by the Hawaii-based East-West Center, witnessed the aftermath of the carnage firsthand.

In sections closest to the shore, all that remained were the structures of bold white mosques whose foundations were sturdier than any family homes in the city. Farther inland, where other buildings had survived, black grime covered everything and ruins were everywhere — uprooted trees, broken furniture, mangled cars, boats and bodies — many of them children.

A heat wave descended on Banda Aceh during the weeks after the disaster, with 100-degree temperatures carrying the biting smell of corpses still decaying in the debris.

The devastation shook the city to its core. But in hindsight, many who survived say the haunting irony is that the tsunami also washed Aceh over with a previously unreachable peace.

In essence, the damage was so great it forced Indonesia’s central government and the province’s separatists to focus on recovery rather than continuing decades of war.

Where several past peace pacts had failed, a new one signed just six months after the giant wave came ashore has held over the past decade.

The Associated Press has noted how both sides made major concessions, with the rebels giving up their long-held demand for independence and quickly handing over their weapons, and the military pulling half of its 50,000-strong garrison from Aceh and promising the region control over 70 percent of its mineral wealth.

“Some people believe the tsunami was a sign from God,” said Muslahuddin Daud, a 41-year-old Aceh resident who reflected on how it took such a disaster to bring the lasting peace.

“Without peace, we could not rebuild Aceh,” said Mr. Daud, an activist and World Bank representative who himself nearly drowned in the catastrophe.

Speaking with visiting reporters in September, he added there was so much death and destruction that the “rebels stopped demanding independence and Jakarta offered autonomy.”

But some elements of the past conflict still cling to Aceh. Specifically, Shariah law remains in place — making the province unique from the rest of Indonesia, where a more Western, secular legal system takes precedent.

Even as many in the province appear ambivalent about Shariah, alcohol is banned and women must wear head coverings. Anyone caught gambling and drinking could be sentenced to lashings — punishment carried out by authorities who exist in a legal gray zone between Aceh’s religious leaders and Indonesia’s central government.

Unmarried men and women found to be in close proximity to each other could also be called before the authorities, and there is little transparency around precisely how Shariah law gets enforced.

Officials at the main Shariah court building in downtown Banda Aceh claim the law deals only with cases of gambling, alcohol consumption and unmarried relations — and that there were just 53 cases of such last year.

The situation has prompted some to wonder whether the U.S. and other Western powers who delivered aid following the tsunami may have missed an opportunity to nudge the province toward embracing a more secular system.

But one longtime political and social leader in Aceh says the outside world should have patience and be cautious about jumping to conclusions over the complex intersection between religion, government and delicate peace in the province.

“To normalize political life in an ex-conflict zone like this will take two generations,” said Irwandi Yusuf, who served as governor of Aceh from 2007 to 2012.

“Just as is the case with Indonesia as a whole,” he said, “we are still learning democracy in Aceh.”

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