When the Waves Overturned Grief


Andrea Woodhouse in Guernica (Image by Charles Pertwee):

The root of the word catastrophe is Greek, katastréphō, and means to overturn. Ten years ago, on December 26, 2004, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the Indian Ocean tsunami brought tens of thousands of people to their deaths, with waves so wild and vast they seemed to overturn the sea.

I was at home in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, when images of bodies and debris began to appear on television. They were shown in slow, fragmented loops, like dreams. In layers they gathered force. On screen, people’s bodies clogged up rivers, their limbs and heads bulbous like rag dolls. My mother asked how anyone could celebrate the new year with death so close.

The images disturbed me. When I learned that a friend of mine, Monica Tanuhandaru, was in Aceh working on the relief effort with the Indonesian government, I joined her.

In Aceh, I met a man who suffered terrible nightmares. Nek Beng and his wife lived in the ruins of the only house to survive the waves in Calang, a town down Aceh’s west coast. Their neighborhood was once a lively town center of about a thousand people, but I was told that only seventeen had survived. In colonial times, Dutch merchants drove through the streets smoking cigars, and later, when Nek Beng was growing up, the town was full of traders, fishermen, and thieves from Java and other parts of Sumatra.

When I visited, nothing of the original town was left but rubble and asbestos. Mounds of earth dotted a field nearby. They were burial sites, some the size of children, marked with white pebbles and faded scraps of cloth on sticks. Dry grass blew silently among the graves. And yet, life persisted. Disaster agencies had put up tents and wooden shacks, and tsunami survivors from elsewhere had moved in. The front part of Nek Beng’s house had been turned into a restaurant. Every evening it was full of people laughing and smoking cigarettes. Curries were piled up in large bowls by the window, and people sat eating noodles and gossiping under a bright electric light.

I wanted to know more about this—about life returning when the waters had scarcely retreated—and went to visit one afternoon with a student from the local university. The restaurant was closed, so we picked our way round to the back. Inside, a large set of stairs led up to the second floor. The banisters had been destroyed, leaving only rough cement steps; above them, a light bulb swayed from a wire. The waves had punched large holes in the walls, through which I could see palm trees and blue tarpaulin.

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