Monday, December 27, 2004
By now, everyone has seen the pictures, the ever climbing casualty figures, and the various situation analyses proffered by the big media providers following yesterday morning's massive earthquake in Aceh. Of course, the need to keep saying something about the big story of the moment, as often as not results in pure silliness -- as when the CNN anchor this morning asked an "expert" to clarify the differences between this current disaster -- quake-generated tsunamis -- and the last major quake with a large death toll, in Bam, Iran. What would we ever do without "experts" to tell us these things? Another professional journalist seemed intent on tying the tsunamis to the weather, as though earthquakes were now a meteorological phenomenon. Or maybe it's just so the on-duty weatherperson doesn't feel left out.
If the news producers really need a new angle to enable them to fill more time, they could have asked a different expert about the Christmas disasters that were anticipated down here, and the irony that we got a massive natural disaster instead. Indonesia was braced for a wave of terror bombings as in 2000, and Thailand had just issued warnings that southern terrorist groups were planning to hit major tourist centers over Christmas and New Years, the biggest tourism period of the year here. Another bombing in the south killed two on Christmas Eve day, and people were preparing to suffer possible attacks in Bangkok. Some of the tourists in Phuket apparently heard the initial wave crash, and thought the terrorists had struck again.
Anyway, everyone is fine here at Agam's place in Bangkok (we returned from upcountry last night). Unfortunately, I'm unable to say the same (yet) for Agam's place of origin, and for the extended family who live there. Anyone who is still wondering, "Where is this Tapaktuan place, anyway?" can now just look at the map provided by your news outlet during the current disaster, and you'll see it -- the location of the epicenter is shown just offshore from that very stretch of the Aceh coast. There is a faultline out there, and this isn't the first time I've spent a day or two trying to get through by phone after an earthquake, just to make sure everyone is alright. My hope was, that Mother and Father were already in Jakarta, staying with their son who I also stayed with during Ramadan back in October. I knew that the plan was for them to travel to Jakarta after Ramadan was over. There is still no communication with West or South Aceh at all, and now more than a full day after the event, the Indonesian news outlets have had no word on the situation in those areas. Even so, the toll from the capital Banda Aceh and other areas in the north and east parts, is reaching close to 5,000 deaths.
I called our brother Azly in Jakarta, praying that I would speak with Ibu and Bapak. Nope. They are still in Tapaktuan. Now I'm worried. Tapaktuan is a small, port town, wedged between its harbour and the mountains. The one thing that I keep in mind, is that from home, it's not very far to the trail up the mountain leading to Bapak's nutmeg trees. I used to make that climb with him, and help carry back the nutmegs. In other words, high ground is not too far away -- and I sure hope this geography is more conducive to survival than the other places I've seen shown today.
There has been lots and lots of amateur video being aired this afternoon on Thai and Indonesian tv news. Some tourists in Phuket got an elevated shot from their hotel, when the wave hit. Other scenes from near Banda Aceh showed people escaping from their kampungs as the flooding began. The scale is just tremendous, a huge portion of the earth's area has been affected, when one considers the destruction even reached the coast of Africa. The small Andaman and Nicobar islands, Indian possessions strung out between Aceh and the Burma / Thailand coast -- reports have approximately 3,000 dead just on those islands. There are hundreds of other small islands along the Burma section of this coast, and no word yet from that country. Thailand has over 400 deaths (many still missing), India more than 6,000, Sri Lanka more than 5,000. Phi Phi islands was said to be almost "wiped out, not much of anything left." Most of the places we sailed to, on this same week last year, will have been devastated. Indeed, I wonder how the Star Flyer came through it all -- for they would have certainly been out in it.
Well, just a note here for the folks back home to know that we were not down on the west coast for Christmas, but safely in the Petchaboon mountains. Hopefully we will soon get some reporting from West and South Aceh. It certainly doesn't help matters when foreigners and journalists are banned from entering the province.