The Day the Sea Came, Part I: A Ghost in the Water
By BARRY BEARAK, November 27, 2005
This article is a preview of Sunday's Times Magazine.
For the earth, it was just a twinge. Last Dec. 26, at 7:59 a.m., one part of the planet's undersea crust made an abrupt shift beneath another along a 750-mile seam near the island of Sumatra. The tectonic plates had been grating against each other for millenniums, and now the higher of the two was lifted perhaps 60 feet. For a planet where landmasses are in constant motion across geological time, the event was of no great moment. But for people - who mark the calendar in days and months rather than eons - a monumental catastrophe had begun, not only the largest earthquake in 40 years but also the displacement of billions of tons of water, unleashing a series of mammoth waves: a tsunami. These surging mounds of water raced toward land with the speed of a jet aircraft and then slowed as they reared up to leap ashore at heights of 50 feet and higher. They were long as well as tall, stampeding inland and carrying with them all they were destroying. People caught in the waves became small ingredients in an enormous blender, bludgeoned by concrete slabs and felled trees, stabbed by jagged sheets of glass, tangled up in manacles of wire.
The number of the dead and missing is now estimated at 232,000. And while this includes victims from a dozen nations, more than two-thirds - some 169,000 - came from a single place, the Indonesian province of Aceh. And of Aceh's mortal toll, more than half - some 90,000 - came from a single city, Banda Aceh, and its immediate surroundings. This provincial capital was a place of large government buildings, two major universities, a historic mosque, stores and restaurants, a harbor and a fishing fleet. It sits in the northwest nub of Sumatra, where converging sea lanes from the Malay Peninsula, India and Arabia once sustained a flourishing trade in aromatic spices. The location, for centuries so favorable, was a mere 155 miles from the earthquake's epicenter. Banda Aceh was swamped by the tsunami within 30 minutes of the tremor.
The devastation left its own peculiar boundaries. Roughly a third of the city - the two miles nearest the Indian Ocean - was flattened and denuded, with only an occasional tree or shank of cement escaping the sledgehammer strength of the waves. A mile or so farther inland, the destruction was more erratic, its effects less a consequence of battering than of flooding. The rest of the city entirely evaded the water's horrific reach; hours went by before some of its residents even knew the day was anything other than sunny and serene.
But the disposition of who lived and who died was more than a matter of distance from the sea. Indeed, some people lived for the very reasons others died. They were in one part of the city when they ordinarily would have been in another. Some were fortuitously late, others disastrously early. Survival was decided by which road taken, which stairs climbed, which hand held. Once in the grip of the waves, hurled and churned through the malign darkness, some made it through the gantlet of deadly debris. And some did not.
Jaloe, a fisherman, survived because he turned his boat toward the gargantuan waves while others steered away. Dr. Sri, assigned to the general hospital's emergency room, was saved by holiday scheduling. Maisara, a housewife, swam through the turbid water and grabbed hold of a floating wooden beam. Romi, a deliveryman, was carried a mile by the waves and then beached onto a logjam of rubble. Haikal, a social activist, boosted himself atop a buoyant patch of roof. Faridah, a shopkeeper, regained consciousness in time to wrap herself around a palm tree.
Centuries ago, as the Acehnese were sending black pepper and camphor to the West, foreign traders introduced them to Islam. Banda Aceh is a Muslim city, and these six survivors credit their endurance to the supreme will of Allah. He alone holds mastery over life and death, they say. And yet inevitably, survivors cannot help wondering how God's hand might have directed events differently. They revisit their memories of that morning, how violently the ground shook, how mercilessly the sea invaded, how densely tragedy contaminated the city. The suddenness still astonishes them.
After all, it had begun as such an ordinary Sunday.
I. A GHOST IN THE WATER
These past few years, Jaloe, the fisherman, rarely fished at all. He carried no nets inside his 25-foot yellow boat. Instead, he followed the larger vessels out to sea, and when their holding tanks were full of grouper, mackerel and tuna, he would transport some of the load back to market. On an average day, his earnings amounted to less than $3, which was just as good - or rather as bad - as what he would have made as part of the fishing crew. But the work did possess the merit of independence. His boat was actually owned by a policeman who shared in the meager profits. But it was Jaloe who controlled the powerful Suzuki outboard motor - and it was Jaloe who decided when to go out and when to come back.
His real name was Muhammad, simply that. The nickname Jaloe separated him from the many other Muhammads in Aceh. The name means "sampan," or boat without an engine. This fit him well because he was uncomplicated by big ideas and ambitions. He was a sturdy if disheveled man who could never quite tame his bristled black hair. His face was densely lined with furrows like a rumpled bedsheet. Unlike many local fishermen, he managed to stay away from homemade wine, marijuana and the other enticements of the busy harbor. He believed in the heaven and hell described in the Holy Koran, and he was not one to take unnecessary risks with his well-being in eternity.
That morning, as usual, Jaloe, who was 46, was out the door soon after sunup. His wife, Yusnidar, and their three children, Mukhlis, 15, Mutia, 14, and Azarul, 5, were left at home. Their rented wooden shack - just a 12-by-12-foot space diced into three tiny rooms - was but 50 yards from the Aceh River, near where it meets the sea. Jaloe carried breakfast with him - coffee as well as a bar of sticky rice sweetened with coconut milk and packed in banana leaf. In an hour, he was four miles off the coast, within sight of the tree-covered Breueh Islands. The water was remarkably tranquil. Barely a bird arced across the deep blue sky.
Then, around 8, the strangeness began. The sea started to shake up and down as if in a rapid boil. Jaloe was so frightened that he took off his shirt and red jacket and prepared to plunge overboard. He thought a ghost had taken possession of either his wooden boat or the ocean itself. Finally, after about 10 minutes, the mysterious tremor stopped. Jaloe steered alongside the Mitra Buana, one of the many bigger boats fishing in the water. Some of its 15-man crew were already thanking Allah for sparing their lives, their arms outstretched in prayerful submission. The boat's captain, Rhaban bin Ahmad, was Jaloe's friend.
"I think there is a ghost in the sea," Jaloe shouted up at him.
"No ghost," the captain replied. "It was an earthquake."
Jaloe weighed the two possibilities. "I think it was a ghost."
Rhaban had a ship-to-shore radio, but he had failed to reach anyone in Banda Aceh. Now he decided it was best to head back to land. This seemed prudent to Jaloe as well.
But soon after they started out, something even more bizarre had them transfixed. Near the Breueh Islands, the sea began to rush from the land as if sucked through a giant straw. An extra half-mile of ocean floor lay exposed. Giddy people unwittingly charged into the emptied space, grasping at the flopping fish suddenly deserted by the sea.
As the water retreated, it fed the immensity of an approaching wall of water. The wave was two or three times as high as anything Jaloe had ever seen. He anxiously tied himself to the right side of his boat near the engine, then sped directly toward it, just as his grandfather had taught him when he was a small boy. The great wave hoisted his boat at a 45-degree angle, and Jaloe's shoulders were pinned back into the stern. He stayed aloft like that for what seemed a minute before the wave dropped the boat with a stunning slap. Three more tremendous waves followed. And when they had passed, he looked across the open sea for the many boats of the fishing fleet. The Mitra Buana and about half the others were still afloat. The rest had vanished.
Jaloe spent no time searching the sea for survivors. Foremost on his mind were his wife and three children. What would happen to them when waves as mighty as those crashed ashore near his tiny wooden home?
On Christmas, the day before the tsunami, Dr. Sri Murdiati enjoyed an afternoon at the beach with her two best friends, Dr. Cut Mulbay Rus and Dr. Denafianti (who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name). The three unmarried women, all in their mid- to late 20's, were recent medical-school graduates. They shopped together, ate in restaurants, took short trips. Dr. Sri often relied on them for transportation. Many women in Banda Aceh drove motorbikes, commonly riding around in fashionable tunics, blue jeans and the Muslim head scarf, known locally as the jilbab. But Dr. Sri was easily flustered, and steering through traffic made her nervous. She didn't like too many things coming at her at once.
Accompanying them at the beach was Dr. Pria Agustus Yadi, the city's only gastrointestinal surgeon. He had been their teacher in med school and continued to be a mentor. During one playful moment, they all waded into the sea. For the women, this meant entering fully clothed. Such modesty was not only a matter of custom but also the law. Many Acehnese considered themselves more pious than their countrymen in Sulawesi, Java and elsewhere. Two years earlier, the provincial Legislature enacted Shariah, the law codifying personal devotion to Islam. In Banda Aceh, the measure had proved of minor consequence. Surely it hadn't stopped the gluttonous corruption of government officials. Public jobs - even those within the police - were still for sale. But the religious law did affect female head wear. Most women had worn the jilbab before. Now they all did.
After watching the sunset, the foursome of doctors split up. The women were scheduled to work at separate locations. Usually on a Saturday night, Dr. Sri would have gone to Meuraxa Hospital, which is near the sea and where Dr. Cut would soon die, her body swallowed by the annihilating waves and never found. Instead the holiday schedule placed Dr. Sri farther inland at Dr. Zainoel Abidin General Hospital, the city's largest.
It was a relatively easy night for her: abrasions from a traffic accident, an asthma attack, a little boy with diarrhea, another boy with a weeping eye caused by conjunctivitis. Dr. Sri was even able to steal some sleep in a small anteroom. At 8 a.m., her 12-hour shift would be done, and she was eager to get home. As she will always recall, had her replacement arrived on time, the horrific burden ahead would have been his, not hers.
The earthquake started slowly, then intensified within a minute. Things began to move side to side like a clapper in a bell. Oxygen tanks fell over. Bottles tumbled from shelves. Beds lurched one way, then spun in another. The E.R.'s air-conditioner was jolted right out of the wall. People rushed outside and sat on the ground, unable to stand while the earth was in such violent spasms. The hospital building was holding up well, but a few others nearby were collapsing. The massive dome of the Al-Makmur Mosque plunged right through the ceiling, making a thunderous, terrifying noise like a bomb.
Minutes after the quake ended, the injured began arriving, a fast-
accumulating collection of the dazed and pitiful and bloody. One was a man with a severed ring finger. Another was a small boy with a crushed skull; he was conscious and sobbing. A middle-aged woman was carried in by her husband and brother-in-law. A blow to her back had left her legs paralyzed; blood was seeping from a deep gash in her right thigh.
The hospital's administrators had never prepared for such an onrush. Little in the way of supplies was kept in the emergency room - no IV's, no painkillers, few bandages. The hospital had little money to spare; as in many poor nations, after new patients were examined, their families were then dispatched to buy drugs, syringes and other items needed for treatment.
In fact, there was a small pharmacy conveniently located across the street. Dr. Sri had just seen the poorly constructed building crumble as the earth shuddered.
Within an hour, most everything that Maisara, the housewife, loved would be swept away by the sea. But in the moments before the earthquake, her concern was whether she was an overindulgent mother. She had three bright, personable girls, ages 11, 9 and 3. The youngest was asleep, but the older ones were once again under the spell of the Sunday-morning cartoons, including their favorite, a show about the Japanese character Doraemon. At such a time, they expected to be served breakfast in front of the TV. Firda, the eldest, had ordered fried rice with a scrambled egg. Ulfa, her sister, insisted on noodle soup.
Maisara, who was 33, had built her life around her family. "My house is my heaven," she would say. She was married to Muharram M. Nur, a newspaper reporter with a reputation for integrity, a man who refused to barter favorable press coverage for cash, a practice known in Indonesia as "taking the envelope." Muharram's mother had taught religion classes, and she had chosen Maisara, her best student, as a wife for her dutiful eldest son. Maisara, eight years younger than Muharram, was only 17 when she became engaged. She had wanted to go to college but failed the entrance exam. Muharram would venture into the world; Maisara would stay at home.
For years, the couple scrimped. Muharram worked extra jobs, turning over the earnings to his wife. Most Acehnese women convert their cash into gold, and Maisara secreted hers in a Tupperware container in a bedroom cupboard. By 1996, they had saved enough for a $650 down payment on a two-story home, buying a lot just east of the city in Lambada, where block after block of new houses were supplanting the paddy fields.
The quake, terrible as it was, caused no damage to their sturdy brick-and-cement house. But just down the road was a new prison, its construction nearly complete. Muharram was in bed with a cold when the tremor began, and now a boy on a bicycle hurried by to inform him that the prison walls had tumbled. The reporter figured this could be his part in the day's earthquake coverage. He picked up a notebook, a cellphone and his new digital camera. "Dad is going out for a while," he told his girls before driving off in his Suzuki minivan. The family would never see him again.
Ulfa, the 9-year-old, was curious about earthquake damage around the neighborhood. She walked to the next block to reconnoiter, gone for 5 minutes, 10 at the most. When she returned, she was overcome with terror. "Mama, Mama, the water!" she was shouting. Ulfa pulled her older sister by the hand. "Let's run!" she pleaded.
Maisara assumed there would soon be a flood, just like the one the previous year. Her first thought was to retrieve the family's money and gold for safekeeping. She went back toward the house, telling Anis, her 3-year-old, to wait for her outside and promising to return with a glass of milk. But Ulfa, seeing her mother tarry, yelled back at her in panic, "Mama, forget everything and run!"
There was such fear in the girl's face that Maisara scooped Anis into her arms and rushed through the front gate. She followed her daughters a short way up the street, then across the public volleyball court and onto the main thoroughfare.
The road was already filled with people. Cars were lurching as drivers competed for any smidgen of space to accelerate. Firda and Ulfa were much faster than their mother and were soon out of sight. For Maisara, quickly out of breath, it was a struggle merely to keep her feet in motion. She was overweight. Her flip-flops slapped clumsily on the asphalt. Anis, clutching her neck, was heavy to carry.
Maisara did not look back. She could hear an odd, ever-louder roar. But she never actually saw what she was running from. Only Anis, looking over her mother's left shoulder, beheld the oncoming water. "Mama, what is that?" the little girl kept yelling.
Romi, the deliveryman, lived in Lamjabat, within a mile of the sea. As in most communities in Banda Aceh, the rich lived alongside the poor. The former owned large two-story homes with ornate columns, curved balconies and layered A-frame roofs. Romi, on the other hand, lived in a traditional panggung house made of wood and held six feet off the ground by stilts. The structure measured only 24 feet by 30 feet, but in temperate Sumatra, which embraces the Equator, most people spent the greater part of their time outdoors. Romi, who was 33, certainly did. A stocky man with a smooth, friendly face, he was relentlessly sociable, his good humor a lubricant in most any conversation.
For nearly 12 years, Romi worked as a security guard in the city's only museum. It was an undemanding job that paid $50 a week. He was fired the previous summer after helping himself to some unused lumber. The dismissal, rather than becoming a financial setback, seemed only to inspire Romi's entrepreneurial instincts. He made a deal with a bakery and each day delivered 750 rolls filled with chocolate, marmalade or sweet bean paste, carrying them in a plywood box strapped to the back of his motorcycle. His wife relinquished 21 grams of gold - most of her dowry - to help Romi buy a used becak, a motorbike with a sidecar that is used as a taxi. He drove it in the evenings. What's more, he tried to use his affability to sell life insurance. The products were described in booklets that he kept at his bedside, though so far he had sold only a single policy - and that to himself. If he could keep up the annual payments, his death would yield $12,500.
When the earthquake jolted him from sleep, Romi was lying beside his only child, 2-year-old Bella. He lifted her from the mattress seconds before a cabinet fell on the bed. Once outside, Romi joined his wife, Sri Wahyuni, and the three of them held onto one another until the ground ceased convulsing. Afterward, people milled about, their conversations alternating between expressions of worry and relief as they took stock of their loved ones and property.
Uncharacteristically, Romi stayed away from all this talk. His intention was to eat a quick breakfast and then start the rounds of his bread route. He walked to a nearby store to buy some rice in coconut milk. Then, as he returned home, he heard the first of the panic-stricken shouting. "Air laut naik!" "The sea is coming!" People were sprinting up Pendidikan road. Some jumped into any available car or truck. One driver was speeding away in reverse.
Romi's indifference to this frenzy would later bewilder him. He blithely walked to his back stairs, holding Bella with his right hand and the breakfast with his left. He, too, presumed people were fretting about a flood. The thought of it actually gave him a mild sense of satisfaction. Sometimes the world gives a poor man a break, he thought. His panggung house stood six feet off the ground. Flood waters would pass underneath.
The social activist, Teuku Achmad Fuad Haikal, was the director of the Aceh NGO Forum, an association of groups advocating good governance. This was no easy agenda in a place of habitual corruption. Further disrupting the social order was the bloody, wearying violence commonly referred to as "the conflict." Separatist guerrillas from the Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM) had been fighting to secede from Indonesia since 1976. For years, the military responded with a massive deployment and all the nastier methods of counterinsurgency. Tactics were devious as well as brutal, with one side often impersonating the other as they carried out kidnappings and extortion.
Haikal, who was 34, kept up an appearance of neutrality, which was unnatural for such an opinionated man. Slender and spry, he was a whirlwind of movement and high-speed conversation. Though he usually dressed simply in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, his presence was reliably conspicuous. He made a grand show of even casual greetings in the street, his face displaying a full repertory of exaggerated expressions. His laugh, a literal "ha-ha," leapt boisterously from his throat. Two cellphones competed for his attention.
That morning, Haikal intended to sleep late, having been up until 3 a.m. preparing to lead an out-of-town seminar. Roused by the earthquake, he hurried for the front door in his undershorts. He found his 3-year-old daughter, Aisyah, sitting at the entrance, crying. His wife, Mawarni, was already outside with their other girl, 13-year-old Ika. The four of them hastened to safety in the middle of an open field.
Their rented one-story house was in an area called Peulanggahan, about one and a half miles from the sea. Twenty minutes after the quake, a close friend of Haikal's - 20-year-old Heri Supriadi - rushed over on his Honda motorbike. That morning, he had been among hundreds of participants in a 10-kilometer run that started in Banda Aceh's main park, Blang Padang. The ground began to tremble just a minute into the start of the race. Unable to stay on his feet, Heri sat down right in front of the city's best hotel, the Kuala Tripa. He watched goggle-eyed as the bottom crumpled under the weight of the top. The curved building now looked as if a giant had tried to stuff it into a suitcase.
As Heri amazed the family with details, a commotion interrupted his tale. People were running up the street, shouting, "Air laut naik!"
Haikal looked to the west and saw the crest of the wave over distant houses, consuming the treetops. Holding his 3-year-old, he began to run, commanding his wife and other daughter to do the same. Suddenly they were part of a crowd in a wild dash toward the narrow Peunayong bridge, which spanned the Aceh River. Heri Supriadi's motorcycle offered a swifter getaway. When Heri got it turned around, Haikal helped his wife and daughters squeeze onto the back. Then the bike sped out of sight, leaving Haikal to his own desperate escape. He could hear the rumble of the imminent wave but did not want to slow down to look back. The street was badly paved and pebbles cut into his bare feet, but he kept his arms and legs churning. He followed the road to the right, then the left. He passed a small mosque and turned right again until he was in front of a fence of iron bars that surrounded a family cemetery.
To his confusion, he then saw people running toward him from the opposite direction, shrieking, "Air sungai naik!" "The river is coming!" Swollen by the great wave, the Aceh River had jumped its banks. The water was now both ahead of Haikal and behind him. Usually so decisive, he had no idea which way to go. So he simply took a few steps back against the cemetery fence and made two fists around the bars.
Then he waited for the water to hit.
Faridah, the shopkeeper, sold rice, sugar, cigarettes and toiletries from a small kiosk covered with a roof of tin and straw. Strong coffee was also served. For those inclined to dawdle, there was the comfort of a table, 10 wooden chairs and two benches.
As a teenager, Faridah had boldly declared her own modest but practical standard for matrimony: a husband would have to bring her fewer troubles instead of more. She remained single until her mid-30's, a smart, genial and attractive woman regularly turning away suitors, including three in one year. Finally she married Darwis bin Saidan, a younger man who had worked his way up from construction jobs into a career as a building contractor. He would help his self-reliant wife expand her store.
Faridah, who was 44, and her extended family lived in Bitai, an area one and a half miles inland. After she suffered three miscarriages, she and Darwis became parents by formally adopting the daughters of Faridah's sickly younger sister. Those girls - Sarah, 3, and Siti, 2 - were with their natural mother on the morning of the quake. Faridah hurried to them after the earth calmed and found them unhurt if terrified. Mangroves on both sides of a nearby stream had been wrenched clear out of the ground, falling atop one another at odd angles.
After a few minutes, Faridah decided to return to her husband, who had gone back into their house to put on his pants. As she walked home, she heard a noise that sounded like an accelerating airplane engine. She scoured the sky, and when she saw nothing, she looked at the distant mountains, her hand shielding her eyes like a visor. Something massive was coming toward the city. It appeared bluish-black, like the color of the peaks through a haze. Had the mountains sprung loose and begun a charge across flat soil?
Faridah had never seen such a thing. Her mind, craving explanation, sorted through the possibilities until eventually the answer became obvious.
This was the end of the world.Barry Bearak is a reporter for The Times and a visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.