Currently on display at @america, ‘Build Back Better,’ draws together photos, slideshows, and a short film to highlight the US’ role in helping the people of Aceh rebuild in the wake of the 2004 disaster. (Photos courtesy of USAID)

Aceh Exhibition Meditates on Loss and Cooperation

JANUARY 18, 2015

The images of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami cutting a swathe of destruction through the Acehnese landscape still sends shivers through one’s spine, even ten years later. The human loss from the disaster is just as devastating: The earthquake and tsunami left over 170,000 people dead in Aceh.

While the human and material losses from the tragedy is staggering, it also made Aceh’s recovery, with the help of the international community, all the more dramatic. This is poignantly evident in the images of reconstructed roads, bridges and other infrastructure, as well as houses, which literally and figuratively went a long way in rebuilding their lives and getting a new start.

The images of the disaster that moved the world to action remain as vivid today as they were 10 years ago in a “Build Back Better,” an exhibition produced by the US Agency for International Development.

Currently on display at @america, the US Embassy’s cultural center in South Jakarta’s Pacific Place mall, photos, slideshows, and a short film highlight the US’s role in helping the people of Aceh rebuild in the wake of the disaster.

“[‘Build Back Better’] is derived from a phrase from then-Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former US Presidents George H.W.  Bush and Bill Clinton to describe Aceh’s rebuilding process,” said Swiny Andina, a USAID development outreach and communications specialist for USAID.

A preface to the exhibition by US Ambassador Robert Blake speaks to its aims: “We hope that this exhibit will allow us to remember the dead, honor survivors, acknowledge heroes, and reflect on the power of the human spirit.” 

“While the tsunami is the story of tragedy and loss, it also demonstrates what the community of nations can accomplish when it works together toward a common goal,” US deputy chief of mission Kristen Bauer said.

The exhibition also features a short film, “Stories of Recovery: 10 Years After the Tsunami.”

“[The film] features interviews with Acehnese tsunami survivors and those who responded to the disaster. Their stories and memories take the audience through the tsunami’s various phases and its aftermath, and give a glimpse of USAID and the rest of the international community’s efforts in reconstructing and rebuilding efforts for the people of Aceh,” Swiny said. “The film also shows life in Aceh today ten years after the tsunami, highlighting the Acehnese people’s resilience and hopes for the future.”

Visitors to the exhibition can hear first-hand accounts of the disaster from survivors and those who helped them rebuild, such as Fauzi Polini of the Red Cross:

“I waded in stagnant water to evacuate some of the corpses. Most people thought one has to cover my mouth to do so, but I didn’t do that,” he says. “I managed to identify the dead with their ID cards. I also washed their wallets and other valuables before giving it to charity, as to do so will reflect well on them in heaven.” 

Other accounts speak to the tsunami’s effect on people from all walks of life. 

“My professor at Cornell University noted that floods might only affect the poor, but a tsunami will affect the poor, the powerful, as well as civilians and military personnel alike,” said Saiful Mahdi, an Aceh native who directs the International Center for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies. 

Saiful said that during the disaster, he too faced the painful uncertainty over his loved ones’ fate while struggling to simultaneously deal with the magnitude of the disaster. “In a way, the tsunami is the most ‘democratic’ of all natural disasters in the world,” he added with a touch of bitter irony in his voice. 

The survivors’ words offer moving testimony to their resilience. 

“If we let our sorrows break our spirit, we may not be able to continue. The Acehnese are survivors; we got this attitude from our ancestors,” said fisherman and community elder Gunawan Husny. “Disasters are tests from God. We must accept them and move on.” 

The US government provided over $400 million in emergency aid and reconstruction efforts in Aceh following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami through USAID and other agencies, such as the Departments of Defense and Agriculture. The funds went towards the people of Aceh’s efforts to rebuild roads, public works and other infrastructure under the leadership of the Indonesian government, NGOs and partners. USAID also assisted Aceh’s people empower themselves by restarting their livelihoods in agriculture and fishing, and by improving access to health care and hygiene.