Banda Aceh

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August 9th 2010
Published: August 12th 2010
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After departing bright and early by ferry from Pulau Weh, I arrived back in Banda Aceh where I had the day to roam around while I waited for my overnight bus back to Medan. For centuries, the province of Aceh at the very northern tip of Sumatra was the gateway into Indonesia for many fleeing to new territory and for others trying to colonize the country and so this is reflected in its name. 'Aceh' is actually an acronym for the Arabic, Chinese, European and Hindi migrant groups who first came to settle the land. Accordingly, Aceh is also considered to be the home and origin of Islam in SE Asia and remains today a fundamentalist Islamic region, having been granted 'autonomy' by Jakarta in 2002 after a decades-long separatist movement.

Many a war was fought over the right to impose Sharia law, which now dictates the norms of society. In this region the consumption, production and sale of alcohol is illegal, gambling and homosexuality are prohibited, sex before marriage is punished with 40 lashes given in public, and adultry by a married person is sentanced to death by stoning. This has created some controversy within the international community, and in Indonesia itself, but while some of the punishments are certainly extreme, it is by no means the 'mini-Taliban' state that some reports would have you believe. The city is full of friendly faces and warm greetings, despite its reputation from the negative media attention the area has received.

More recently though, the city of Banda Aceh was made a media spectacle once again when it suffered tragically at the destructive hands of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. More than 170,000 Acehnese people died and infrastructure covering more than 800 km of coastline was destroyed in one terrifying blow. Oceanliners were found in the city centre. A power generator had been dragged 4 km inland. This was the unfortunate reality for the hundreds of thousands of survivors, forced to live without adequate shelter or nutrition for months after the waters receded.

It's an impressive feat of accomplishment then, that walking around the city today you'd never know the destruction that was, less than 6 years ago. All that remains are a few vestige reminders, like a boat that landed on top of a house which now serves as a monument to demonstrate the power of the tsunami. Others are more haunting, like the 4 mass graves used to burry the 60,000 unidentified victims. Mourning families choose one of these graves based on proximity to where the deceased was thought to be during the tsunami.

But the work of many international NGOs has helped to piece the city back together. I met a traveller who worked at Oxfam during the tsunami relief that was still in effect in 2007. Citizens of Banda Aceh were promised free houses built by local contractors and financed by international donations. She dealt with the administrative nightmare of trying to determine who were actual residents and who were only claiming to be residents in order to procure a new house.

Having walked around with a new Dutch friend for most of the day and marvelling at the resiliency of the city and its people, it was time to drag ourselves onto the long-haul overnight bus back to Medan. (We didn't break down this time, thankfully.) Now it's on to the scerene Lake Toba, land of the Batak.

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