Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Real lives

Eyewitness account of the devastation in Aceh, Indonesia

UNICEF’s Media Coordinator of Emergency Operations, Gordon Weiss, is in Aceh, the province hardest-hit by the tsunami ocean surges that struck Indonesia and other countries around the Indian Ocean on Sunday. He gives us an eyewitness account of the plight of children and their families who survived the disaster.

By Gordon Weiss

ACEH, Indonesia, 31 December 2004 - A young boy clings to a plank. People are watching him from the bridge above. They stare for a few moments, and then move on. The boy’s dead body lies atop a sea of debris, the gentle ocean swell rocking him against the bridge’s wooden pillar.

The once emerald-green rice paddy-fields of Aceh have become graveyards for thousands of people. Bloated, blackened bodies rise above the water and line the narrow roads. Corpses seem to be everywhere - wedged in piles of wood, between sheets of corrugated iron, and under snapped palm trees.

From a hill high above the village of Segun Ayun, several hundred villagers huddle beneath a tattered plastic tarpaulin, surveying the remains of their fields – and their lives. The villagers tell us that until last Sunday, about 50 villages stood in the wide arc of land spreading out to the coast. On that fateful morning, farmers working their fields watched in amazement as a wall of water appeared in the distance, then tore across a broad swathe of coastal land, smashing everything in its patch. The 10-meter-high wall of water – carrying wood and other debris - surged across the plain, crossing the two kilometres to Segun Ayon in about 4 minutes.

We drive on a little closer to the sea, to the village of Pengungi, where local people tell us that we are the first international aid workers they have encountered. Of the 6,000 people in the area, about 1,000 were killed. A third of the victims were children; another third, women.

The children, traumatised by their experience, cling to their parents as we talk. The adults tell us that scabies has broken out, that the children are suffering from diarrhoea and respiratory infections. Of the 15 schools in this small cluster of villages, 13 have been destroyed. Many of the teachers have been killed.

Apart from food and water, the people here plead for help to re-open the schools for their children, who desperately need a safe place that could restore some normalcy to their shattered lives.  One old woman says in broken English, “Education is medicine to these children.”

For hours, the children tell us stories of chance survival - and of shocking death. Aulia, 11, ran from the wave, following her brother toward the hills behind their home. She was about to be dragged away by the swirling tide but her mother managed to grab hold of her just in time.

Four-year old Mohammad was carried with his mother through the torrential sea, first clinging to a tree, then wrenched away by the force of the current. Upon reaching another tree, they were able to cling to a branch, where they remained, petrified, until the waters receded.

Every few hours, aftershocks shake the ground here. The stench of death lingers in the air. Half of the city of Banda Aceh has been inundated and smashed. The figures for the dead rise each hour. Relief efforts are hampered by poor roads and destroyed infrastructure.

Aid organizations like UNICEF are beginning to make an impact in this stricken land, but the long struggle to breathe life back into Aceh and its people has barely begun.


 

 

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