Remembering Tsunami 2004: ‘I wanted to know’

  • Living
  • Wednesday, 17 Dec 2014

Searing scene: An aerial photograph taken on Jan 6, 2005, showing the scope of destruction at Banda Aceh after the Dec 26 tsunami. — CHUA KOK HWA/The Star

The Star’s WONG CHUN WAI was among the first foreign newsmen to arrive in tsunami-ravaged Aceh. This is his original report, updated and with a fresh perspective to mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

It was bizarre but then I am a journalist at heart. I had to be there. I wanted to know what the stench of death was like in tsunami-hit Aceh.

My wish was granted when I finally reached Ground Zero 10 days after the disaster. I was warned that the smell of death would stay with me forever.

I arrived in Banda Aceh fully prepared: with a mask, a thick handkerchief, and a bottle of minyak angin (medicated oil).

After 20 years as a hard-nosed journalist then, and having covered a wide of spectrum of news, including gruesome killings, I thought I would be able to stomach what I would see.

My Indonesian driver, Maran Gunawan, had warned me before we drove out of the airport that even more than 10 days after the catastrophe, the stench was unbearable because the mass burials had yet to be completed.

Man on the spot: The writer on board American aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln in January 2005, on his way back from Aceh. — CHUA KOK HWA/The Star

While efforts were being made to remove bodies from the rubble of damaged buildings, the focus of the rescue workers was on saving lives and searching for survivors, not the dead.

Maran looked me in the eye and asked whether I was sure I wanted to look at the bodies. I nodded and told him, in Bahasa Malaysia, to move immediately.

It had not been a good day for him and other locals as an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter Scale had hit northern Sumatra earlier, sending panicky Acehnese, still trying to cope with the aftermath of the disaster, into the streets again.

Barely 10 minutes after we drove out of the airport and beneath a huge archway with the sign “Selamat Datang ke Serambi Mekah (Welcome to the Veranda of Mecca)”, the stench became apparent.

Just a short distance away, a huge hole had been dug to bury the dead. A huge pile of bodies, all in black body bags, had been left unattended at the mass grave. No one knew for sure when these unidentified victims would be buried.

The locals just passed by without a second glance. Only a few journalists like me, who had just arrived, took the trouble to stop and look at the gruesome scene.

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