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Tsunami: Report from aceh

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Tsunami: Report from aceh

  1. 1. 1 RELIGION AMIDST THE CATASTROPHE (An Early Survey of Rescue and Recovery Activities in Banda Aceh After the Tsunami of December 2004)1 By Zulkarnaini Abdullah2 Introduction I would like to thank you very much for being here with us this evening. My special thank is to the committee of the congress for its kindness of inviting me to participate in this very important event and to share with you my experience of the catastrophe in Aceh. My special thanks also goes to Michi and all of my colleagues here, who have given their support and made me able to attend this forum. To the Shinnyo-en temple, I would like to express my gratitude for its benevolent support for my coming here. The Questions In the midst of catastrophe, do people need or have hope in religion? What does the role the religion play amidst the catastrophe? What does the situation in Aceh show us about the role of religion in response to the catastrophe? Tsunami in Aceh According to some Acehnese historians, the tragedy of tsunami (Acehnese: ie beuna) has occurred four times in Aceh, in modern history: by 1700, 1800, in 1907 and December 26, 2004. The 1700 tsunami swept out a district called 1 Presented at the World Congress of IAHR (International Association for the History of Religions), Tokyo, 2005. 2 Vice Dean for Students’ Affairs, Sharia Faculty, State Institute of Islamic Studies, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
  2. 2. 2 kampong Pande, of which, during that time, constituted a small empire. By 1800 Lamuri, also a small empire, was destroyed, and the people of the area moved gradually to the region now known as the city of Banda Aceh. The tsunami of 1907 swept the western coastal regions of Sumatra Island; the tragedy has been well known to the people of the local area of Simeulu. For these people, earthquake has traditionally become a signal of the possibility of the coming of gelombang raya or ie beuna (tsunami). That is why last year’s catastrophe did not take many victims in this small region; there were only about 22 people died. For my generation, tsunami is not much heard, not well known. For some of the older generation it is almost a legend. But the catastrophe last year has unfolded the legend and made it the most popular topic for people in Aceh to talk about. After two months passed, “tsunami” is still heard everywhere: in the sermons, small group discussions, coffeehouses, meetings etc. How It Happened Only in minutes Banda Aceh and other coastal regions from the north to the east of Aceh were devastated; all were swept out, cleared and covered in debris. Hundreds of thousand of people were killed; about 60 thousand injured and more than 300 thousand made refugees. Some say that the destruction was twofold of that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 or probably more; others say, it was as if destroyed by a small nuclear bomb. According the eye witnesses in Olele (Ulee Lheue), the wave of tsunami mounted up to about 30 meters high, moving very fast and left no chance for the people to run away and save themselves. When the mountain-like wave smashed down, everything burst into the air, so some people thought that
  3. 3. 3 some explosions from the bottom were also occurring at the same time; many people in trucks were thrown away then drown into the water. Many people thought it was the end of the world, the kiamat, that they felt no need to run away anymore, “we all will die.” In Alue Naga, a Muslim saint (lebai, mosque servent) was reported to have called people to the mosque; he believed that the doomsday was coming; it would be useless to run away, the planet would be destroyed. The man was a teacher of theology at Fakultas Ushuluddin, IAIN (State Institute of Islamic Studies) of Banda Aceh. I was reported that he and his followers perished in the tsunami while their being in the mosque, but one of his children survived. In fact, many people thought, at that time, of the coming of the Day of Judgment; they ran to save themselves to the mosques as they believed that the House of God would serve as a place of refuge. A Tragedy It was a great tragedy. Many stories were told of how people struggle to survive; some successful, but many failed. The stories are ones that mix between tears, hope, surrender, theological challenges, and other painful feelings. A man from kampong Jawa, to the north of the city of Banda Aceh, told me that he saw his wife and children drowned into the water while he himself was unable to help. Many survivors have their different accounts of the tragedy. A young man I met in a refugee camp reported of himself as being carried by the tsunami about two kilometers, from Lampulo to the middle of the city of Banda Aceh; he could see how many people were drawn, struck by blocks, tress and so on. He did not even know how he could survive. Many people have more or less the same story. A friend of mine, a staff member of Fakultas Syari’ah, died a couple of days after the tsunami. The
  4. 4. 4 local doctor said that the man was poisoned by the polluted water he swallowed. It is reported that many people died by this way; the other way was that they were run over by buses, trucks, cars etc., or stepped over by the flock when they were rushing and flocking in the streets. Everybody thought only of himself, or his family at the utmost. To help others is only a matter of chance. The true characteristics of the people were uncovered: no one would help or care others unless he himself was certain of his safety; more than that, one, sometimes, would not be afraid to endanger other persons’ lives to save his own life. The feeling of brotherhood disappeared; this later on was taken as a parallel of what the Qur’an, the Islamic Holy book, says about the sign of the Day of Judgment, i.e.: when the people only thought and care of himself individually, but a woman feeding her baby would throw him away. People’s Responses In Banda Aceh, no one ever realized that the earthquake could generate a tsunami. Even when the people on the street shouted that the sea water is coming, some just questioned, “Is that true? How could the water reach our place?” Therefore, the people went panic when they saw the horrific tsunami was running towards them or about to drown them. Thus the first thing people realized after the tragedy was their ignorance about the tsunami. Only few people in Banda Aceh had known it before. Some of my friends told me that after hearing the word, they quickly checked it in the encyclopedia and learned about it. Discussions about it then developed into a sort of criticism: why didn’t the teachers in the schools ever teach about the tsunami? Why the government had been so careless about this.
  5. 5. 5 At the religious level many discussions and controversies have developed. Some religious Muslim regarded the tragedy as a kind of punishment from God, for there had been so many sins committed by the people in Banda Aceh, particularly the sort of adultery, killings, the ignoring of brotherhood and others. However, they said, it would be unethical – but it would be wrong – to judge the victims of a tragedy as the sinners; but it should be demanded for all of us, particularly those residents of the stricken regions, to ponder and reflect upon the tragedy as a reminder or admonition from God. Mr. Paradis, a Governor official, staying in kampong Pineung, said that many signs of God were reflected in the tsunami. “Look, there are many mosques remain standing while other buildings around them turned into ruin. This signifies the call of God to the people to fill His house and make prayer in it. On the other hand, the tsunami destroyed many fences that hedged and squared people individually in their places. So, God wanted to remind us of our brotherhood, mutual care and social sensitivities.” Al Yasa Abubakar, a Professor at IAIN Ar-Raniry of Banda Aceh, approved this interpretation as a positive self reflection towards a personal and social development. A cording to Al Yasa, as to many devout Muslims, any tragedy that happens to human beings must be seen as God’s will and part of His universal plan, which is full of mysteries and, most of the times, beyond human understandings; we have to accept this as part of our lives, or otherwise we would be in depression. Any act of God must be wisdoms in it; we should try the best to pick some lessons from it. Sayed Muhammad Husein, an activist in Banda Aceh who lost his wife and children, told me that the tsunami should remind us of the unbelievable power of God. His sign is so clear and strikes our eyes. For me, Sayed said, this tragedy has strengthened my faith in God and His power of no limit.
  6. 6. 6 However, there is also a negative interpretation, which developed by some groups of traditional Muslim, particularly those who stay in the remote villages. They believed strongly in the punishment of God to the people of the city of Banda Aceh. “God now has made some balance of justice. There had been many people killed in the villages by the Indonesian army or by the Acehnese separatists, and no one from the city had taken care of us. But now, we can see many dead bodies scattered everywhere in Banda Aceh, and we would be unable to take care of them.” These kinds of thing are usual in the traditional society. Many natural phenomena are referred to as symbols and these symbols are then tended to be interpreted along the lines of their tradition and belief. Now some scholars of our University are trying to make some balance of interpretation and explanation to the people with reference to more authoritative views of scholars of both classical and modern, so as to make the society more aware of the context of the many views they have heard. Coffee Bar (Café) One thing is probably interesting to notice in Aceh, the coffeehouse. After the tsunami many cafés are full of people. What is the function of Coffee bar for the Acehnese? Drinking coffee is so popular in Aceh; any time you come to visit someone, you must be served with a cup of coffee. If you meet your friend on the street or somewhere else, and you want to talk much longer with him, you must call or invite him to have a cup of coffee in a coffee house. It is almost ironical if we further observe that we found so many coffee bar around the two main campuses in Aceh, University of Syiah Kuala and the Islamic University of Ar-Raniry, while there is none of bookstore; this is true particularly in comparison with, for example, campuses in the city of
  7. 7. 7 Yogyakarta, around which you would find bookstores everywhere. Why coffee houses are so special in Aceh? Because they have traditionally served as centers for information or news circulation; ideas and opinions are disseminated and spread over through the coffee bar. People come to that place not just to taste a cup of coffee, but also to discuss many ideas with friends, and to hear information from other people. How Religions Fight The Acehnese are “multination” people. That is why ACEH is said to be the abbreviation of Arab, China, Europe, Hindia/India. Everywhere in any places in Aceh, many different faces can be found; some are like Chinese, some like Indians, some like Arabs. In Lamno, west Aceh, you would see people with blond hair and blue eyes; they are said to be the descendents of Portuguese converted to Islam during the Dutch colonialism. From these differences, through centuries, came an ethnic group called Acehnese. One thing has strongly united the Acehnese, i.e.: the religion of Islam. For the Acehnese, says the Dutch scholar B.J. Boland, being an Acehnese is equivalent to being a Muslim. Thus, as mentioned earlier, the workers of aid and help and relief for the victims the last year catastrophe in Aceh have much to do with the religion of Islam. Being this in mind, many would assume that Aceh must be a fertile soil for radicalism and extremism. To some extent, this might be true, but there is a question of the meaning of radicalism. Many people in Aceh would consider themselves as radical Muslims, but not as extremists. What they mean by radicalism is a commitment and devotion to their religious teachings. But some would say that they are fanatics in the sense that they have a claim of the truth of their religion.
  8. 8. 8 However, as I have experienced it through my life, it is absolutely wrong to perceive the Acehnese as a closed society. Aceh has a long history of its international relationship, and now, many Acehnese are in many countries in the world. But, for some political reasons, Aceh has been closed by the Indonesian government for tens of years. People entering and leaving Aceh are strictly monitored. Nonetheless, the last year tragedy has shifted the situation. People around the world burst into Aceh, though with some difficulties at first. Most Acehnese are quite welcome to anyone. Strangers are always perceived as guests, provided they keep respecting their tradition or customs. If you say to them that you are a Muslim or a scholar interested in Islam, you would received much more respect and honor. Many radical Muslim groups or organizations, such as Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Indonesian Mujahidin Council), who have been well known for their actions of destroying bars opened during the fasting month of Ramadhan and of the fighting Christians in Maluku, are originated from Java, and not popular in Aceh. Nonetheless, many groups and organizations of whatever origins, which came to Aceh after the tsunami, have won great sympathy and respect from the Acehnese for their working hard of giving aids and help to the local people. However, I heard that many Acehnese are unhappy with some radical groups who said that they would remain longer in Aceh to supervise and help the Acehnese building their Syari’ah in Aceh. Rescue and Recovery Probably the most active of the helper groups in Aceh is PKS (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, Justice and Welfare Party), an Islamic based political
  9. 9. 9 party in Indonesia. This party sent thousands of its members throughout Indonesia to Aceh. Most of them are young scholars and brilliant University students. They work hard and the local people mostly like them because they are religious in attitudes but modern in ways thinking. The other group is Hizbut Tahrir, an independent Islamic organization which is more radical in terms of religious thinking. But the people of the group has have shown great cooperation with other teams both national and international. In my place, this group cooperated with Portuguese army in cleaning up a nearby high school. DDII (Indonesian Islamic Mission Council) has worked with many international Islamic organization in providing aids for the refugees. MER-C (Medical Emergency Rescue Committee), which has link to international Islamic organizations, has worked together with Indonesian and International Red Cross. More than that, and this is interesting, the group of Islamic Defender Front, has sometimes been asked by the American army to work together in distributing food and other aids to the refugees; and they were quite cooperative. It is really interesting to find out that the tragedy has to some extent bridged the human differences and destroyed the blocks of either political, religious, ethnic or others, which have jailed human beings in their own particular concern. A much more universal human concern is now pushed to the front, and most people become aware of their deeper human nature, that we are all in fact one: to save one life is as if to save all human lives, and to destroy one life is as if to destroy all human lives, say the Qur’an and the Talmud.

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