I often kept notes from the places where I lived and worked, in the form of copies of letters I sent to friends and family at the time, or just as short impressions for myself, so as not to forget. Our year in Aceh, Indonesia, was a particularly interesting year, because of the nature of the work, post-disaster rehabilitation, but also the setting, in a from internal conflict recovering society where a mild form of Sharia law is being practiced. So, although not strictly a travel experience, I decided to share my notes on this site, occasionally edited, and added to, to ensure a consistent story. To be honest, the photos aren’t great, and suffer from dirty lenses, but it does liven up the text a bit.
In July 2006 I arrived in Banda Aceh, on a one-year contract with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). My job was to lead the rehabilitation program that had been established following the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, that had wrecked havoc along much of the coast of the province of Aceh (Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, in full), part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. IOM was new to me, and so was the disaster response work, the self-inflicted adrenaline-pumping atmosphere where everybody was in a hurry to run projects, cutting corners in their haste to save lives, without time to record and reflect on what was being done, and without realizing that 18 months after a disaster there are no lives to be saved anymore.
The biggest challenge we faced coming to Banda Aceh was that we were traveling with a dog. A dog is ‘haram’, unclean, in Islamic societies, and as I mentioned above, Aceh, with its Sharia law, was clearly a devout Islamic society.
One of the easiest, yet most impressive, trips one can make from Banda Aceh, is to drive out of town in southern direction, along the coastal road to Meulaboh. There is no need to go all the way to Meulaboh, and in any case that would have taken well over 8 hours in the days we lived here, no, just half-an-hour is sufficient. This was the road that was completely wiped out by the tsunami, and the main reason why it took the best of two weeks to assess the damage and estimate total number of casualties. Nobody could reach the worst affected areas.
My employer, IOM, is working throughout the province of Aceh, first and foremost on the post-tsunami program, which naturally concentrates along the coast: with the building of houses, rehabilitation of schools and clinics, and large and small scale economic stimulation projects an attempt is made, together with hundreds of other organizations, to build back better, a term coined by Bill Clinton. But a significant part of the IOM-specific program is also directed towards the peace efforts.
Back in Banda Aceh, early December, we finally had the local elections, for governor, the first time Acehnese have voted for their own rulers. The elections were a spin-off of the peace agreement that was signed some eight months after the tsunami, between the independence-seeking GAM and the Indonesian government, or more accurately the Indonesian army, which has profited from multiple side businesses in the province during the years of armed conflict (like there is illegal logging, extortion, growing marihuana, and what have you). Popular belief has it that the peace deal was a direct result of the tsunami, that inflicted so much damage on both parties, and also suddenly focused the eyes of the world, including those of 100’s if not 1000’s of foreigners who arrived in its wake, on Aceh, but in fact I have it from reliable source that a peace deal had been in the making for months before the tsunami, and a final draft was sent out two days before the disaster struck. In any event, tsunami or no tsunami, elections were on the block.
The town of Banda Aceh is pretty quiet, there is not a whole lot to do. It may be the capital of the province of Aceh, and it may be the heart of the tsunami rehabilitation activities of the international aid community, but it remains a small town, with rather limited facilities.
So what does it look like, Banda Aceh?
Traffic is dominated by motorbikes, even more so than in India. It seems that children grow up on the bikes, as 2 year olds they ride with their parents, it is indeed not unusual to see four people, daddy, mummy and two children, on a bike – without sidecar, just a two wheeler -, and by the time the kids are 8-9 years old they ride by themselves. The concept of minimum age is unknown, even if the law specifies such age, people are unaware of it. Then there are the becaks, motorbike with sidecar, the sidecar being an extra wheel with either a wooden plank, no more, or a proper seat installed, operating as taxis.
Despite being a rather small town, and despite having been further reduced in size by the tsunami, there are still some interesting historical sites in and around Banda Aceh.
The obvious place to start is the big mosque in the centre of town.
In December 2006, two years after the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, Aceh was hit by massive floods, this time from the sky rather than from the sea. I am sure this happens more often, largely unnoticed by the world, but with thousands of international organizations present in Aceh at the time, an additional aid program was quickly established.
The early history of Aceh is not well documented, but its rise to prominence, as the Sultanate of Aceh in the 16th Century, is not disputed. Strategically located to control traffic through the Malacca Strait, Aceh gradually increased its influence, especially under Sultan Iskander Muda, who established links with the Ottoman Empire, and with the Dutch East Indies Company, to fight the trading monopoly of the Portuguese just across the water. By then, Islam had firmly established itself along the coast, an observation already made by early travelers like Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo in the 13th Century. Aceh became known as the Verandah of Mecca. This did not prevent the Acehnese from being ruled by women, and in the 17th Century several subsequent Sultanas rose to the throne.