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Indonesia: remembering the tsunami and its aftermath

23-12-2009 Feature

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, the ICRC recounts the aftermath in one of the most devastated of the tsunami-affected areas, the regional province of Nangroe Aceh Darusalam in Indonesia, or Aceh, as it is commonly known.

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/id-e-00038    
  Camp for displaced people in Desa Siem village, Aceh province, January 2005. Child survivors of the tsunami from Banda Aceh.    

  ©ICRC/Maxime Keffer/id-e-00040    
  Aceh province. View from above shows a lone mosque standing in a village that was entirely washed away by the tsunami.    

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/id-e-00037    
  Banda Aceh. Indonesian Red Cross volunteer performing the grisly task of collecting the bodies of tsunami victims.    

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/id-e-00039    
  Desa Siem Village in Aceh province. Indonesian RC volunteer tours camps for the displaced, transcribing and collecting family messages.    

  ©ICRC/T. Gassmann/id-e-00028    
  Behind the stadium in Banda Aceh. ICRC hospital with 100 beds and a surgical ward, donated by the Norwegian Red Cross.    

On 26 December 2004, an undersea earthquake, with an epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, triggered a devastating tsunami, inundating coastal communities with huge waves killing hundreds of thousands people. The regional province of Nangroe Aceh Darusalam (NAD) in Indonesia ended up at the heart of the tragedy.


From the day of the tsunami onwards, the ICRC provided the Indonesian Red Cross Society (Palang Merah Indonesia – PMI) with equipment and relief items. Because it was one of the few international organizations already active in Aceh (with means of communication, logistics and a stock of relief supplies), together with the PMI, the ICRC was able to respond immediately after the disaster struck. On 28 December, ICRC delegates and PMI volunteers distributed 1,000 tarpaulins for shelters and family kits for 9,000 displaced people, containing clothing, hygiene items and food. In addition, 20 PMI branches and local hospitals received first aid kits and medical equipment to treat the wounded. Distributions then continued every day (see box Assistance provided ).

Meanwhile, ICRC/PMI engineers continued trucking clean water and installing water tanks and sanitation facilities where they were most urgently needed. The joint teams cleaned thousands of wells, drilled boreholes, built latrines and communal washrooms and donated tonnes of chemicals to ensure safe drinking water provision. These activities took place in the northeast sector of NAD, as well as in Banda Aceh and its surroundings. Gradually, thanks to increased access to conflict-affected areas, 75 humanitari an assessments were carried out. They revealed an acute need to repair community infrastructure, improve water and sanitation conditions and boost local food production capacity.

ICRC/PMI teams provided medical and surgical supplies to hospitals still functioning in Banda Aceh and to ad-hoc health facilities in places where displaced people had gathered. At the request of the authorities, the teams also distributed large quantities of painkillers, antibiotics,ther medicines disinfectant and medical equipment to health facilities   (“Puskesmas”) in Banda Aceh and along the north coast.

An ICRC/PMI medical team erected a 100-bed field hospital provided by the Norwegian Red Cross to treat patients. After the closure of the hospital in May 2005, ICRC/PMI and the Norwegian Red Cross donated it to the Ministry of Health and they organized a training course for their own staff and PMI health personnel on how to redeploy the facility if need be. PMI/ICRC teams also erected a temporary camp in Lhong Raya stadium, next to the field hospital, to shelter 400 displaced patients in need of simple medical care and the relatives accompanying them.

The ICRC and PMI acted quickly to ensure the proper and dignified disposal of the remains of tsunami victims and helped the authorities take immediate action to reduce the health risks related to the presence of a large number of bodies strewn throughout the affected areas. ICRC specialists supported the PMI, whose volunteers undertook a remarkable effort under acute psychological strain, by organizing on-the-spot training and by providing body bags and equipment for handling bodies, and by helping to bury remains.

Since the main lines of communication had been disrupted by the tsunami, tens of thousands of people were anxiously searching for their relatives. They turned to the Red Cross for assistance.

From day one of the disaster, on 26 December 2004, ICRC/PMI tracing teams deployed the full array of technical solutions they had been trained with to restore family links. They offered various services to the public, in order to re-establish contact between the survivors isolated by the disaster and their families. Most of the visitors who contacted the ICRC and the PMI Tracing offices were looking for their children.

From the outset of the disaster, the ICRC also created a special section on its Geneva-based website so that people in Indonesia and elsewhere who had lost contact with their relatives could register online, provide the identity and other details concerning the relative unaccounted for or register themselves as survivors. In total, 44,300 people registered. This phase of the ICRC/PMI emergency tracing operation culminated in the publication of all these names in public places and, finally, a three-volume book distributed in early July 2005.

  Mass graves    
  ICRC/PMI Tracing teams surveyed 63 unmarked mass graves of tsunami victims in NAD in 2006 and assessed 300 other graves in 2007, where 97,000 tsunami victims had been buried. The ICRC/PMI Tsunami Mass-Grave Project completed its task at the beginning of 2008. Together with their colleagues on the tracing teams, ICRC/PMI teams surveyed 343 gravesites in seven districts, where 108,720 victims of the tsunami were buried, which means that less than 50% of the people reportedly killed by the tsunami have been properly buried. The ICRC and the PMI produced a 2,300-page report, which they handed over to Social Services (DINAS) and to the Governorate of Aceh, to help them address the needs of people with missing relatives.    
  Assistance provided in NAD, Banda Aceh and surroundings    
  Relief assistance
  In all, 265,000 tsunami victims received essential items (hygiene products, clothing, cooking utensils, tents, tarpaulins, mats, blankets and baby parcels); 36,000 received food rations; 2,400 families were housed in ICRC tents and 120,000 people benefited from clean-up operations and received reconstruction kits (composed essentially of tools and essential items for the maintenance of adequate standards of hygiene).

  Water and sanitation
  ICRC/PMI teams cleaned 3,620 wells, drilled 5 boreholes, built 667 latrines and 42 communal washrooms and donated 154 tonnes of chemicals to ensure the provision of safe drinking water. These activities took place in the northeast sector of NAD and in Banda Aceh and its surroundings  

  Medical assistance
  The ICRC provided surgical gloves sufficient to perform 100 major operations or 200 minor operations, suture material sufficient for 100 to 120 operations, dressing material for 1,600 dressings, plaster casting material sufficient to treat 80 fractures, 18 kits of basic medicines for dispensaries and 10 sets of basic equipment for dispensaries.  

  Forensic work / management of remains
  ICRC/PMI teams provided 10,500 body bags, 500 large rolls of plastic, 2,500 rubber boots, 500 helmets with lamps, 3,000 pairs of protective gloves, 3,000 facemasks, 400 shovels and 500 sets of protective clothing to PMI volunteers, troops of the Indonesian National Armed Forces and police teams mobilized to rapidly dispose of the dead bodies. Together, the PMI, the police, the armed forces and search and rescue teams collected over 105,000 corpses in the town of Banda Aceh alone.  

  Re-establishment of family links
  For a six-week period starting on 26 December 2004, over 2,500 people used ICRC satellite phones to call their relatives in Indonesia or abroad free of charge, with most calls made from the west coast of Aceh. Meanwhile, ICRC/PMI tracing teams printed and distributed specially designed "I am alive" registration forms to the public throughout NAD. They collected 18,500 of these forms and in April 2005, when all other means of tracing missing persons had been exhausted, they published the names of 10,000 people seeking news from their families in local newspapers. In June, they published the names of a further 7,500 people in the same situation.  

  The third ICRC/PMI tracing activity was the registration of "persons sought." This started in January 2005, in response to a clear need; when people were filling in "I am alive" forms, they insisted on adding the names of missing family members. The "Persons Sought" form was therefore needed to ensure that tracing requests were recorded correctly and to collate the names of missing family members into lists. From January to mid-April 2005, joint ICRC/PMI teams collected 25,000 such forms throughout NAD. Children (for these purposes, anyone under 18) were by far the most vulnerable group when the tsunami hit, and made up 40% of the ICRC/PMI “Persons Sought” list.  

  Through their intensive fieldwork, ICRC/PMI tracing teams directly solved more than 3,800 cases where family links had been broken. Twenty-two children (out of 48 registered as unaccompanied) were reunited under ICRC auspices.