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Banda Aceh: a city in shock

20-01-2005 Feature

The Indonesian city of Banda Aceh was badly hit by December's earthquake and tsunami with parts of the city completely wiped out. ICRC delegate Robin Bovey is in the city to help relief efforts and has written this report.


The city looks relatively normal until you drive to the part of town nearer the sea and then the sights and smells suddenly strike you.

I thought I had been somewhat prepared during the drive into town from the airport.

" This is where they have buried six thousand people – so far”, said my colleague, Nina, a young Indonesian woman working for the ICRC.

The site was a sea of mud with workers operating heavy machinery in the rain. Parked beside the road were a few large trucks. Some of the workers, masked and filthy, were throwing body bags onto a growing pile on the back of the vehicles. Exhausted, it appeared they were now inured to the fact that they were handling corpses.

It occurred to me that the area was about the size of a soccer pitch – surely not large enough for six thousand bodies. “Oh no, " explained Nina, " They bury them in layers – six until now. "

Nina goes on to tell me that she is lucky to be alive. “I lost my brother, my sister-in-law, my grandmother and some of my cousins – but I am alive and so I must be happy.” She is so obviously dazed by everything th at has happened -- and that is how it is here, everyone is reeling from shock, though some have been more fortunate than others.

For example, the young doctor who is a field officer for the ICRC. He and his wife and children were just about to go to a wedding. He was waiting for his wife outside their house with the car engine running. When people started to shout about a huge wave, he grabbed his family and drove as fast as he could, just managing to get out of harm's way.

Arriving in the part of town where the huge waves hit, it is impossible not to feel overwhelmed. Piles of wood that were once houses, twisted metal and concrete pillars are strewn everywhere. Nearer the coastline, about four kilometres from the sea, everything has been flattened, as if a huge bulldozer has just driven over the area. Virtually nothing is left standing – trees or buildings. It is a stunning sight and I have no wish to see it again.

Until the tsunami struck, most foreign organisations were not permitted to work in this area due to the conflict between government forces and groups of rebels. The ICRC, in line with its mandate to help those affected by conflict, had a small office manned by two expatriate delegates. This meant the ICRC was well placed to respond to the disaster quickly, with a first flight leaving from Jakarta within a matter of hours. 

As of mid-January, ICRC had distributed food to over 30'000 people. Other organisations with a specific mandate to assist in natural disasters had arrived – including many National Red Cross societies from around the world and importantly, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The ICRC continues to help by distributing family kits containing essential household items to around 300,000 people.

The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement is well aware that long-term assistance will be required to hel p the survivors of this disaster continue with their lives. The challenge is to ensure that our programmes are imaginative and contribute in a meaningful way to putting lives back together.

What is clear is that it is not just people’s houses that will take time to rebuild, but their hearts and minds as well.