Three years ago today, the tsunami hit Aceh. It was a cataclysm so vast that Acehnese don’t talk about it all that much.
It’s easier to deal with human-scale things.
That morning, December 26, 2004, in an inland town far from the impact, the initial rumbling of the earth was so terrifying that people ran into the alley, screaming.
One of them, a woman, did so in a daze, having woken from a deep sleep, and, apprehending what was happening around her seized up and fell down to the dirt path, trembling.
Not long after — and it is still mysterious why, since phones from the shore, at Banda Aceh, were down — someone started yelling “tsunami!, tsunami!,” as strange trickles of water indeed appeared from nowhere.
Everyone knew that the sea was an hour’s journey away, but this was no time for theorizing.
People ran to the mosque, which has a second floor, a kind of cupola below the call-to-prayer niche, and Muslims and Hindus gathered praying, talking, and crying, awaiting Noah’s flood.
Not all of them, though. A few stayed with that woman who was stiff and trembling, then fully unconscious.
If they were going to drown, they would drown a few minutes sooner, and in the good company of a beloved one.
As it happened, the tsunami never struck that town. The earthquake had shattered the municipal water pipes.
That accounted for the trickle, which, in a kind of celestial joke, would be the only piped water some ever saw, since in that, as in many poor kampungs piped water — “PAM” — was a mere dreamt-of, anti-microbial luxury.
If the tsunami had been high enough to take out that town, which is well inland and elevated, it would indeed — for the world — have been the end of the world, but that didn’t happen, so we’re now talking.
But for much of coastal Aceh, the world did end that day, and in such a way that rich people noticed.
It was a slow news day — the week after Christmas is, as they say in America, “dead” — and within days Brian Williams was doing the NBC Nightly News live, by klieg light, from Banda Aceh.
That brief moment in the global manmade electronic sun did not dry out flooded Aceh, but it did bring vast donations since, when people see suffering they can be decent provided that a. they really see it — and in graphic terms –, and b. they are not told by authority that the dead people deserved it.
Traveling west from Banda in the aftermath was like traveling on an Apollo space mission, since, once the bodies had gassed and popped or been taken away, the scene was less beachfront than lunar.
There were three old men sitting on folding chairs — actually, probably in their thirties or forties. All of their extended families were dead. They, still stunned, were a new social unit.
Not fifty yards behind them, on a slab that was once a house, there was an obscene graffito.
Like a number of indecent writings in history, it was authored by a religious grouping.
“These are the wages of sin,” it said. The signature was “FPI” — the Islamic Defenders Front, a group of men usually found in Jakarta girlie bars busting up the places when the owners don’t pay off or when they are too tightwad in doling out instructional-use bottles of the sinful liquor.
The FPI is one of those useful institutions found in places like Indonesia and Pakistan that are simultaneously the subject and the object of the US Global War on Terror (GWOT, an official Pentagon term), and its symbiotic affiliate, the Islamist Industry.
They are both the problem and the solution since, on the one hand, they are scary Islamists, but on the other, they are backed by the Indonesian security forces, which are backed by the US to fight Islamists.
Creatures of the POLRI — the Indonesian National Police — FPI also works with the armed forces (TNI) (Two years ago the FPI actually hung banners in Jakarta generously praising the POLRI, the kind of street recognition — that if you’re a POLRI man — you know you’ll never get without paying well for).
After the tsunami the TNI flew the FPI to Aceh on US C-130s, with the apparent idea that they would intimidate and spread havoc, as Aceh activists reasonably feared.
But in a surprising turn, suggesting that even hypocrites can experience awe, the FPI guys seemed to largely behave themselves, ideologues’ graffiti notwithstanding.
According to a doctor who worked alongside them in the gruesome task of lifting bodies, they were quiet, and — as poleaxed as everyone else — went about their work with some humbled diligence.
Not so a visiting cleric who I was unfortunate enough to share a van with, who explained benignly that the particular wrecked town that we were viewing was famed for gambling, racing, alcohol, and infidelity.
He was suggesting, in other words — like, say, an American spokesman in bombed Fallujah — that all those dead people deserved it.
He didn’t even get annoyed when I asked why the divine tsunami had managed to miss Jakarta — where he’s from — where the venues of sin are famous (and police-protected) and outstrip those of coastal Aceh.
Instead his smile got wider, and still more beneficent. It was like watching American religious — or some political — TV. The signal is : ‘You pathetic sap. I know the secret. You are going to hell. And get out of my way, I’ve got a date tonight, in Jakarta (or in Washington).’
The tsunami in Aceh killed perhaps 200,000 people, the same rough number as the toll of children killed worldwide, in some part, by malnutrition roughly every two weeks. (For 16,000 child malnutrition deaths daily, see 2007 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau, Washington.)
Politically, we don’t define each preventable — undeserved — death as being a cataclysm, though for the dier, and for their loved ones, it is, and, unlike a tsunami, stoppable.
This anniversary week, the news reports that Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs got a 67.9 million dollar bonus, enough to put a tsunami’s – worth of children in his hands — to let-die or save, strictly at his own whim. (Alistair Barr, MarketWatch, “Goldman Sachs CEO gets $67.9 million bonus,” December 21, 2007).
The little brother of a friend of mine survived the tsunami by climbing up a light pole, and when the flood receded he climbed down and, the story goes, sat upon the ground and thought some.
The 30-foot flood had swept cows, cars, and children on past him.
When he got down he saw corpses and mud. Was he the world’s last surviving person?
He considered that possibility.
Eventually, they say, he regained his wits, started walking, and, with some relief, learned — as another young man would later say, commenting on life in the wake of one death — that “this world still exists,” which is true. But the converse is also true.
Every time one single person dies, the world they saw from ends.
The world ends, somewhere, every few seconds. It’s a cataclysm. We should see it as such, and, when preventable, prevent it, even if that means contravening some whims.
ALLAN NAIRN can be reached through his blog.