Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Road to Bener Meriah II - Aceh, North Sumatera, Indonesia

The road to Bener Meriah
One of the temporary tents built by the government at Bener Meriah
In the early morning of 22nd July, our driver, Salahudin, a young graduate from one of the Aceh universities appeared at the hotel lobby. After introducing ourselves, soon the journey begins. Our first destination is to Sigli district, to pick Misbah who lives in the village of Meurdu. The 2 hours journey to Meurdu was full of stories about the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. "Where were you on the 26th December, 2004?" I asked him. Cheerfully, he told me "I was at home lazying around that Sunday morning." He was 17 years old then and he told me how he ran for his life to higher grounds but got himself entangled into the congested murky water. "Alhamdullilah, I am destined to live, though at that time I thought I'll take death as I have less sin at that age" he chuckled and continued "but now if there is another tsunami I would beg for mercy to live as I've grown up and become sinful!" Instantaneously, we broke into laughter, Astaghfirullah!

Salahudin is a friend of Misbah's brother but he has never known her. The road to Sigli is excellent and after slightly more than 2 hours we arrived in Meurdu. Misbah and her family cheerfully waited for us at the entrance of their house. It's Ramadhan, so we are not delayed by the traditional culture of entertaining guests with food and drinks..that's very much Asian culture. We bade farewell to everyone and continued our journey. Sumatera and Aceh in particular is not densely populated like Java island, and moreover the 2004 Tsunami had killed more than 200,000 people of Aceh. Along the way, our conversation touches on several issues from Tsunami, politics, economics, social and the current earthquakes in Kabupaten Bener Meriah and Kabupaten Central Aceh.

Narrow unpaved roads after the earthquake and several landslides
Until Bireuen, the road is very good but beyond that, we have to go real slow as the winding road up the mountain are very narrow, some unpaved and extremely dangerous. Some parts of the roads have crumbled in the recent 6.2 magnitude and 10 km deep earthquake with several landslides and at least more than 20 aftermath quakes. It could be 5 to 7 hours and it all depends on the road. My stomach was rumbling and my head spinning as our vehicle rocked on the gravel stones on the tortuous  routes up the mountain. After the twisty road, then I realized we were just at the edge of the cliff as I sneaked through the windows.

At Simpang Balek, we stop at this shop to look for some locals who could
help us to locate the affected villages 
It was a great relief when we arrived at Simpang Balek, a little town before we get to Ketol. Worst hit areas are Timang Gajah, Blang Mancung in Central Aceh and Serempah in Ketol. The total death toll from the three affected districts (Central Aceh, Bener Meriah and Ketol) are 42, 6 still missing, about 4,600 are treated for several injuries and more than 50,000 people are displaced. More than 22,000 people lost their homes completely and live in temporary tents and without aids it could be indefinite. With the highest number of death, the village, Serempah, in Ketol district is completely buried under the soil. Some roads in Bener Meriah are buried by landslides, making accessibility to small settlements very difficult but we will keep our directions to those which are accessible.

The teacher on the left has been teaching in this school for 24 years
As we approached the affected sites, we saw countless tents built around Ketol, tents for district offices, households and temporary schools. We stopped at a primary school compound which has gone literally flat and the teachers who happened to be clearing the debris cordially invited us for a sit under the tree. They told us how their homes were vigorously rocked, initially up and down and then side to side.   This area had gone through a lot since the 30 years conflict between GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and the anti separatists; they were killed, their houses burnt even in late 2001 and now they are tested with multiple natural disasters. The 2004 Tsunami was the turning point and the 2005 Helsinki MoU has somewhat provided sufficient peace and stability in the area.

Their faces tell the deep suffering they have undergone but their perseverance are beyond imagination.  With about $1,500 USD from the government, the male teacher and some villagers were busy building the temporary school for the kids but he kindly took time to explain to us the current situation. Everyone at the site gathered under the tree, they have so much to tell as they described their nightmares. Speechless, we took a deep breath! We had to move on to other areas and several houses along our way were empty and abandoned by the owners as it was not safe to stay there.

We accomplished what we intended to do in Bener Meriah, to deliver some aids and school supplies for the children. Misbah and Salahudin reminded us that we need to get out of the area before it gets foggy and dark. We bade goodbye and left the area with sadness and prayers for the victims. We pray that they are able to rebuild their lives again and the kids can get to school as soon as possible.  This is a memorable Ramadhan for me.

Houses in the villages at Ketol
Many houses, mosques and schools went all flat
Although some houses structures are visible, the damages have made it unsafe to live in
The remains of the school administrative building aren't safe anymore
Regardless of the calamity - the kids happily played on the piles of table and chairs 
They managed to picked some books from the debris
The dangerous side to side movement of the earthquake brought down the main school building
Most houses are not safe to live in
In Ketol, these tents are their new homes, schools and offices
They are determined to rebuild their lives - our prayers are always with them

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