Making sense of Aceh's ghosts

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 20 Feb 2005


CALANG (Aceh): It was after 10pm one night in the third week of last month when Muliady and his friend were forced to spend the night at the beach as it was too dark to make it back to their homes. 

It was then that Muliady heard the cries for help. 

“Help me, help me from the water. Help!” a woman cried. 

This was almost a month after the Dec 26 tsunami and Muliady looked around uneasily but he saw no one so he bit his lip to keep calm. 

But his friend shook him nervously and told him: “Abang, abang, hantu panggil (Brother, brother, the ghost is calling).”  

“I was so frightened that all the hair on my arms stood up,” said Muliady. 

Graffiti seen on a wall in a town in Aceh province recently. The words say: 'Bodies are everywhere, but the ghosts of the sea have never given up. We, too, feel grief.'

Then they heard more and more cries for help – this time from babies, children, men and women – and the two grown men huddled close, said prayers all night and at the first break of dawn fled to their homes. 

Ghost tales such as this are not confined to this small town in the west coat of Aceh. 

In fact they are widespread all over the province that many are convinced that the spirits of the dead tsunami victims are still walking among them.  

One such person is Ari. 

A few days after the tsunami, he was asked by the owner of Hotel Medan in Banda Aceh to look after the hotel. Corpses had already been cleared from the street in front of the hotel and as the higher floors were not ruined by the tsunami waters, Ari slept in one of the rooms on the third floor.  

It was sometime after midnight when he was woken up by the cry of a woman. 

“She was wailing in pain. That was when I heard the others. They were all calling for help, saying the water was coming. So I ran off,” he said. 

Some streets in Banda Aceh are totally deserted at night because people fear of what they might come across. 

There is a story of a man who went crazy when a spirit appeared before him. The incident is supposed to have occurred in Sigli, four hours by road south of Banda Aceh. 

The man had stolen a ring from a dead body and at night the dead man came in a dream to this thief and hounded him. 

Tsunami survivor Zafaruddin, in relating this tale, said the man who stole from the dead was in such a desperate state of mind that he approached a holy man in the village and begged him to take the ring, but the holy man refused. 

“The spirit kept coming after the man and after a few days he went mad,” he said. 

While some may believe in these spooky tales, others like psychiatrist Dr Abdul Kadir Abu Bakar think there is a scientific explanation behind the so-called haunting. 

He said that for the first three weeks after the tsunami, people seemed dazed and confused as they pushed painful thoughts aside. 

But after that, he said, “things come back to them when they go to sleep” and they hallucinate, imagine things and “hear” sounds like the waves or cries for help. 

“This is natural. It is an expected reaction when people undergo an event of such catastrophic magnitude,” said Dr Abdul Kadir, a Mercy Malaysia volunteer. 

He calls them “intrusions” because the thoughts are not there all the time and the person is able to get on with his life despite the “haunting”. 

As for the ring thief story, Dr Abdul Kadir, who is from the Kuching Hospital in Sarawak, said this stemmed from guilt. 

“We Easterners believe we should treat dead bodies with respect. In some cases, a person would feel guilty for stealing something from a dead person and not doing what was expected of him, which was to bury the body.  

“And it comes back to him and he will visualise the haunting and things like the dead body coming back to ask for its body part if there was mutilation. It is a personal haunt rather than an actual haunt,” he said. 

Whatever the explanation, the truth is out there – somewhere. 

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