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Tsunami anniversary – When the tsunami hit Bandah Aceh

By Hotli Simanjuntak

Panglima Polem Street near Peunayoung neighborhood in Banda Aceh, 26 December 2004 and 16 December 2014

Sunday morning, 26 December 2004 was very peaceful. As usual, I started my day watching television. It was a Christmas cartoon show on a local channel about an ugly and a beautiful Christmas tree.

At 8:35 am, an earthquake shook Aceh, starting with a small wobble, shortly followed by a harder shake. Then a few objects in the bedroom fell on me. Aware that the earthquake was very strong, I frantically tried to get out of the room to stand out in the open area.

The earthquake forced people to lie down on the ground. Trees and electric poles tipped over followed by a very loud roar. People started screaming and praying to God. About five minutes later the earthquake stops. People began to examine their homes for damage.

I checked the surrounding neighborhood near to where I lived, then grabbed a small camera and headed downtown.

Panglima Polem Street near Peunayoung neighborhood in Banda Aceh, 26 December 2004 and 16 December 2014

I started by the tallest hotel building in the city of Banda Aceh. The hotel basement had collapsed. Hotel guests tried to escape out the hotel windows, fearing that more aftershocks would bring the building down.

I received information that a large shopping center had collapsed with many casualties. I arrived to find hundreds of people gathered, trying to determine the condition of the building.

About 30 minutes later, dozens of people were running from the coast line in a panic screaming “Sea water rise up! Sea water rise up!”. I still did not realize that at the time a big wave was moving from the beach to where I was standing.

When I turned toward the river next to the shopping center, I saw that there were some fast-moving wooden boats being brought by the water flow in the opposite direction. Some of the boats hit the bridge. People tried to jump into the dirty, black water that carried the ruins.

That’s the moment when I realized that my own life was threatened. I panicked and tried to find a high spot to save myself. Along with me were hundreds of people seeking refuge in tall buildings.

Baitulrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, 26 December 2004 and 16 December 2014.

I ran toward a pole monument at a crossroads. At the time, from a distance, I saw a roll of water coming quickly, overturning dozens of parked cars and crashing them onto the roadside, such was the power of the oncoming rush.

I tried desperately to save an old man from the water, grabbing his hand. Finally, he was safe.

Moments later the water flow totally stopped. People scurried to find a safe place, should another wave come in.

I did not fully realize what was happening. At the time I was really confused, trying to take pictures of those wanting to save themselves and helping those who were injured. Ruins and garbage was strewn along with piles of human corpses.

I was shocked and did not suspect that it was the tsunami. I kept walking and photographing some places nearby that were still under water.

When I arrived at the river bank, I was stunned to see that thousands of houses were no longer there; they were all washed away. From where I stood I just saw a stretch of empty land and collapsed buildings. I now had a clear view to the sea.

It was at this moment that I began to realized the size of the disaster in Aceh. I did not yet know that it was the biggest tsunami of the century with the death toll reaching more than 200,000, gone in just a few minutes.

I was so sad. Seeing the piles of corpses and wailing people calling the names of their relatives lost to the tsunami was overwhelming. Tears fell from my eyes; I almost couldn’t hold my camera. I was paralyzed by the situation, as people desperately looked at corpses, trying to find their loved ones.

Aceh River near Peunayoung neighborhood, 26 December 2004 and 16 December 2014.

Now, ten years after the tsunami, life has returned to normal. Reconstruction has been completed. People who survived the tsunami have returned to a somewhat normal life. But ten years is a very short time. The tsunami still feels as if it only happened yesterday.

It was unbelievably sad, but I felt that I was one among the lucky 200,000 people who survived the catastrophe of the century. December 26, 2004 is an unforgettable moment and I am sure I survived because of my journalistic instincts to cover the situation.

Hopefully the survivors have been able to put back their lives together. As for those who died, may they be in the hands of God.

epa photographer Hotli Simanjuntak in Incheon, South Korea, 02 October, 2014. credit: epa / Mast Irham

epa photographer Hotli Simanjuntak in Incheon, South Korea, 02 October, 2014. credit: epa / Jeon Heon-Kyun

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