These tsunami survivors prove just how resilient people can be

The lives of tsunami survivors have drastically improved, but scars and reminders remain.
Clea Broadhurst

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The facts are so shocking they bear repeating.

Just before 8 a.m. local time on Dec. 26, 2004, one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded took place off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It triggered a massive tsunami, devastating shorelines around the Indian Ocean.

Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra, was by far the worst affected. Waves up to 20 meters high destroyed everything, taking houses, boats, trees and cars as one.

Some 170,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were injured and displaced.

Here in Aceh’s capital, survivors recall the day that wiped out life as they had known it.

Fauziah, 45, shopkeeper

Among the now-rebuilt houses of Banda Aceh, a fishing boat stuck on top of a crumbling roof stands out.

The tsunami’s waves left it there, in this neighborhood located about two miles from the sea. It is now a tourist attraction.

Nearby, Fauziah, a middle-aged woman with a welcoming smile, is setting up her small souvenir and snack shop. She was forced to abandon the now uninhabitable house, and moved a few blocks away.

Thanks to this boat, Fauziah and 58 other people survived ten years ago.

On that day, Fauziah was at home with her five children, the youngest only 5 months old. Her husband had gone shopping. After the earthquake, her oldest son went out toward the coast to see what was going on. He came back screaming, “Go upstairs, mom, upstairs.”

Fauziah took her children to the second floor, but in seconds, the sea was everywhere. “The water was black,” she remembers.

Soon, they had water up to their chests. Fauziah held her baby above her head, arms outstretched, to try to save her.

“We thought it was the end, that judgment day had arrived,” she says.

“Then we heard people screaming that there was a boat stuck on the roof. My son managed to kick a sheet of metal from the ceiling, just enough for one person to get through. He climbed onto the roof, and then helped us out, and onto the boat.”

For hours, Fauziah and other neighbors who had also managed to reach the boat watched their city being destroyed. “The sea was everywhere, no building standing. The waves hitting houses sounded like bombs being dropped.”

As well as souvenirs, Fauziah sells dried fish that she prepares herself. She displays it in a “boat on the roof” box picturing photos of the boat. It’s not the only vessel stuck deep among the buildings — there’s a cargo boat thrown in by the waves in the city center, as well as others.

That the roof boat has become a tourist attraction brings mixed emotions.

While Fauziah is grateful she can live off of its fame, she says it’s not always easy to see tourists cheerfully taking pictures in front of the boat. “Sometimes I feel sad,” she says. “I see people over there having fun and laughing. As if this is a place for having fun.”

All of Fauziah’s children survived the tsunami. The baby she was holding above her head is now a shyly smiling 10-year-old girl. But Fauziah’s husband never came back from the market, and her mother and brothers and sisters also died that day. The boat is a constant reminder.

Muhammad, 25, student

Muhammad’s story starts like many other survivors'. “I was at home having breakfast and tea with my family. Suddenly, we felt the earthquake.”

Everything in the house fell over. His parents started tidying up. They heard people shouting and panicking outside, went to check what was going on, and saw the water coming.  

“My parents held my two sisters, they were all holding onto each other but my mum kept on screaming at me ‘run son, run.’ I started running. I saw them being taken by a wave. I was crying but I continued.”

Soon, he was caught by a first wave, then by a second “as big as that building,” he says, pointing at a three-story block of shops and cafes across the street.

“I was rolled about by so many waves, with garbage and tree trunks,” he says. He thought he was going to die, but decided to fight. He seems to relive it all as he describes again and again with his arms the panic of trying to reach the surface of the water and grab things to hold onto.

Mohammad was 15 at the time. His parents and two sisters were never found. Today, he struggles to forget, but he says he wants to “look forward.” He lived with an aunt for a while, and now has his own place, donated to him through a reconstruction program.

These days, he goes to college and works in a cafe in the evening. Whenever he has free time, he goes surfing. 

“I spent a lot of time in the ocean when I was little, I’ve always been a good swimmer. I’m not scared of water.”

Rusmaizar, 48, fisherman

In Banda Aceh’s port of Deah Glumpang, fishermen return from a day on the sea. It’s a calm, sunny day and they’re busy removing massive tuna from the boats. Around the port, looking at the trees, houses and roads, it’s hardly possible to guess that this was all razed to the ground by the tsunami ten years ago. 

Rusmaizar, a 48-year-old fisherman from Banda Aceh, wasn’t in town the Sunday morning the tsunami struck. His work had taken him to Pulau Weh, a small island about 10 miles from the mainland, known locally as Sabang, after its main town.

When he felt the earthquake, he tried to call home. “I thought it was only in Sabang,” he says. But there was no signal. He walked to the ferry station to see if anyone had more information. What he heard was inconceivable. “The guy there told me Banda Aceh had been destroyed by a tsunami, that there was nothing left.”

Rusmaizar made it back to Banda Aceh, to the shocking truth and chaos. He remembers the horror of seeing it.

“There were no houses left. Everywhere ruins, trash, and bodies.”

Rusmaizar’s wife died in the tsunami, as well as dozens of members of his family.

The fishermen, living a few meters from the coast, were the worst affected. Most lost their houses and families, and hundreds of thousands of them across the province’s 800-kilometer coastline lost their livelihood.

But later, when the authorities tried to establish a 2-km (about 6,500 feet) no-build zone on the shore, Rusmaizar, as well as most fishermen, opposed it. Aceh is a tsunami-prone area, and earthquakes are frequent. But he says he has no choice but to live with the risk.

“Of course we’re afraid, but what else can we do? Our life is here, our job is here,” he says.

Along the coastline, a Japanese NGO built three-story escape buildings — reinforced residences where people could take shelter. The fishermen were allowed to rebuild their houses on their original sites.

One of the escape buildings is visible from where we stand in Deah Glumpang, and Ruzmaizar is intent as he points and describes the safety procedures. He says fishermen are now prepared. “There was a big earthquake two years ago, and everyone ran straight to the escape building,” he says.

If it happens again, “people will know what to do.”