The Asian Tsunami
Jan 05, 2005
Where you are, where you've been, and access to information all affect your views of the world. I'm currently in Kenya, and even here 4000 miles from the epicenter, there were some deaths. I also spent time in some of the places most affected by the tsunami, which gives me more emotional involvement in the disaster.
September 11, 2001, I was in Indonesia. I spent the week after the planes hit on a tiny remote island with no access to news: no TV, no radio. For that week, I thought that the death toll in New York was 50,000. When I returned to the mainland, I was immensely relieved to learn the death toll was only 3000. The impression of "Thank god, only 3000" never left me. For the tsunami, I was in a guesthouse with satellite TV. I spent a week glued to CNN and BBC following up to the minute news. I had a mix of different thoughts and emotions as the news rolled in.
In the first hours after the quake, I was most afraid for Bangladesh though I only spent one day there. Reports from Sri Lanka described water rushing far inland and demolishing everything in it's path. Bangladesh is nothing but a big flood plain. In those first hours, there was no word from Bangladesh, so I feared the worst. Had the tsunami waves gone north, half of Bangladesh would have been flooded and millions would have been killed. This tsunami is indeed terrible, but it is not at all unprecedented. A cyclone in Bangladesh in 1970 killed 400,000 people and another one in 1991 killed 140,000 more.
Eventually, reports came in that Bangladesh was basically untouched and very slowly, over a period of days, the news turned towards the destruction in Sumatra. Sumatra is one of my favorite places in the world. In addition to the natural beauty, the people are amazing. I had the same conversation almost daily:
"What's your name?"
"Where are you from?"
"What religion are you?"
"Are you married?"
"How old are you?"
Guidebooks, CNN, and almost everyone else had warned me about the extremist Muslims in Sumatra. Initially, I said I was from Ireland or Sweden. But, lying about my homeland only lasted two days. Everyone was no nice and friendly, I didn't see the point. I stopped lying about my religion too. The most common response to "I'm Jewish" was "Don't know that one." No one in Indonesia ever gave me trouble for being Jewish.
Then the marriage question would come up. My new friend's grins would be replaced with puzzled looks when I answered in the negative. They could not imagine anyone my age, with some money, not being married. They saw it as a problem. But, the smiles returned to their faces a moment later as they saw the solution: "No problem. I have a sister/cousin/friend. Very nice. You can marry her." This is how I remember Sumatra - smiling people I'd never met, offering to help me.
Unfortunately, the lovely people of Sumatra have suffered through countless disasters and tragedy. Aceh has been embroiled in an ugly civil war since 1976. It's a war of religions - Liberal Indonesia guarantees freedom of religion for multiple religions. While, conservative Aceh wants to separate from Indonesia to form their own Islamic state. But it's also a war for oil, as Aceh is full of oil, timber, and other valuable natural resources.
In 2002, Indonesia lost a civil war on the far other end of the Indonesian archipelago. East Timor gained it's independence, and Indonesia responded by escalating the war in Aceh. With the oil there, Indonesia will never give up Aceh. In 2003, Indonesia declared martial law which lasted a year. They forbid all tourists and journalists from entering the state, creating a near complete media blackout. No one knows the full of extent of the atrocities that occurred in that year. The few reports that made it out described executions, mass graves, 40,000 internally displaced people and 200,000 people in internment camps. Martial law ended, but the war continued. That was the situation in Aceh when the tsunami hit.
The waves that hit Sri Lanka pushed as far as a mile inland destroying everything in their path. It looked as if flat areas were going to suffer the worst from the tsunami, but Sumatra proved that idea very wrong. Many of the small fishing villages along the western coast of Sumatra sat between the ocean and the hills. When the mass of water came in it had no where to go, but up. In some towns of Sumatra the water level reached a shocking 90 feet. When the water rushed out, it took everything with it, except a few very lucky survivors clinging to trees. The scenes look like nuclear bombs have been dropped on these towns -- It's eerily reminiscent of Hiroshima; everything flattened or gone, other than one building standing, but broken.
I'm afraid that we need to brace ourselves for the death toll to continue to go higher. Nine days after the quake, reports from Sumatra continue to worsen. But, the numbers don't tell the whole story. We will never be able to fully comprehend the level of devastation, death and suffering without having been there. I have shed a couple of tears watching the news, but don't pretend that I feel the depth of the tragedy. I think the TV networks aren't doing enough in helping us understand the tragedy. One TV network described themselves as guests in our homes. They said it wasn't their place as a guest to put images in our living rooms which would make us feel uncomfortable. But, this is the time to feel uncomfortable. There are faces behind the death, and without seeing them, we won't even begin to understand.
I woke up New Years morning and went straight to the TV to check the latest body count. I was overjoyed to find that it had been replaced with a growing donation count. Someone at the UN called Bush "cheap". Congratulations, to him. Bush responded by giving an additional 300 million dollars. We should have tried calling Bush names much earlier. The international community finally began responding to the disaster. What a great way to welcome in the new year. The relief effort is unprecedented. Wouldn't it be great, if we as a world community, started making a habit of this.
I watched the first helicopters dropping off supplies in the most devastated areas of Sumatra. The first shot showed Indonesians who hadn't eaten in 5 days rushing at the helicopter like animals. But every other shot showed devastated people, who had lost everything, as friendly as can be. They kept shaking hands again and again with the aid workers and journalists saying "thank you, thank you." And beyond belief, they were smiling. This is the Sumatra that I know. What's going to happen with rebuilding? Are we going to forget about them next month? And now that the international community has access to Aceh will we help end their civil war?
There has been some surprising good news. I spent 5 relaxing weeks on the wonderful Indonesian island of Palau Weh. Unfortunately, It sits off the northern tip of Sumatra right next to the epicenter. I was particularly worried about it, and feared the worst. I checked on Lonely Planet's message board and found first hand accounts. The destruction was almost complete. Along two beaches only one building, a dive shop, remained. But miraculously everyone survived.
Mostly my reaction to the disaster has been one of humility. We are so insignificant when compared against the power of nature. As bad as the tsunami was, there have been much worse disasters. Sumatra was also the site of the worst disaster in human history 75,000 years ago. A supervolcano exploded with 10,000 times the force of Mt. St. Helens. The aftermath left a volcanic winter that lasted 6 years and brought mankind to the brink of extinction. Only an estimated 5,000 humans worldwide survived. Those are our ancestors.
Another of these monsters sits in wait beneath Yellowstone Park. But it's not waiting so quietly. There are the boiling pools and geysers, but the floor of Yellowstone Lake has also bulged 170' in the last 50 years. The pool of lava underground is massive: 30 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 6 miles deep. When it explodes it'll take half of the US with it. The rest of mankind will once again struggle to avoid extinction. Yellowstone erupts regularly, about every 600,000 years. That seems like a very long time, but it's already 40,000 years overdue.
This journal entry has been far too serious so I'll end with the lighter side of the tsunami. Even in the face of horror, always remember to laugh at what is funny, as it's the only way to keep your sanity. In Kenya, the undertow that preceded the tsunami picked up a hippo and carried him miles out to sea. However, the hippo was found and rescued. I have no idea how you rescue a hippo; only this mental picture of a small fishing boat, with it's bow high up in the air, struggling along trying to tow a hippo behind it. On a beach In Sri Lanka, an Israeli surfer was out catching the morning waves. A huge wave came in. He focused on riding it. It wasn't until he landed, on a highway, more than a mile inland, that he realized anything was wrong. The wave of a lifetime.
* Google Tsunami Relief
I'm enjoying the journal and your fantastic photos, Adam. I've done quite a bit of traveling myself, so it is always fun to read others' accounts of places and be reminded of places past.
frances - Jan 06, 2005
you and your post on Sumatra rock - was there in 2003 and am sad,angry & numb re: the disaster, the disproportionate media attention given the tourist (cheap beer and girls-for-sale) hub of Phuket (not to mention the 'human interest' stories about rescued dogs and elephants, the 'miracle' stories about cute european children who survived;) yeah, I'm glad they did, but the coverage is incongruous when sumatra and the islands off the north coast are forgotten. What about the them? the catastrophe is so huge, death toll so high, that it's abstract - unreal, and unspeakable. I heard that US military dropped 10lb bags of ground black pepper as 'food aid'!!
The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that this disaster will be used as a convenient way to secure an oil rich region for western/US interests without the expense of having to actually invent a terrorist threat, invade, depose the gov't/GAM, set up another phony election of a puppet president-dictator....and I am sickened by interviews with military personnel going to Indonesia saying, 'whether we're carrying food or bombs, we're prepared, this type of situation is perfect for the military' (CNN). WTF?? The US army should NOT be using this as an excuse to set up a prescence in Aceh!!
cheers, keep writing!
EJ - Jan 08, 2005
Keep up with your journal entries, they are fantastic!
frances - Jan 08, 2005
check out http://www.independent-media.tv/item.cfm?fmedia_id=10211&fcategory_desc=Under%20Reported
Casey Fenton - Jan 10, 2005
Adam, I really enjoyed reading this entry. Good stuff that I've both never thought of or haven't heard in the news. Nice.
Julia Mallen - Jan 11, 2005
I found your site as we find most things of true substance and value by chance and fate. All of the pictures were amazing but it is your journal entry of the tsunami disaster that pricks the heart and makes what we hear on the nightly news here of little relevance at all.
You have been blessed with a great gift for writing. As an aspiring writer myself I am quick to admire and recognize the God given talents of others such as you.
I look forward to keeping up with your travels now that I have found your site.
God speed and many blessings on all your future adventures.
Julia in Jersey~
susan elliott - Jan 12, 2005
dave and i both enjoyed your article, your a very good writer...have you summitted any to magazines, yet?????
wako wondimu - Mar 23, 2005
keep goning,as musch as possable send me any news to mu mail or p.o.box
- Nov 11, 2005