Boxing Day tsunami: A personal account from journalist Christopher Zinn on his return to Aceh

Christoper Zinn
ABC News, 26 December 2014

2014-Aceh-fishing-boat-572x326PHOTO: A fishing boat that came to rest on top of a house after the tsunami in Aceh in 2004 remains as a memorial. (Supplied: Christopher Zinn)

Almost 10 years after his first visit to the tsunami-wrecked province of Aceh with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre (APJC), journalist Christopher Zinn returns to see what has changed.

There are several must-see sights on the tsunami tourism trail in Banda Aceh but the normality of a simple wrecked house remains among the most chilling.

You can see a mass grave with 16,000 victims, a 30-metre fishing boat dumped on the roof of a house and a 2,600-tonne ship stranded five kilometres inland in the midst of a suburb.

But do not miss the stark, damaged but defiantly still-standing skeleton of a home near the beach in one of the worst-hit communities of seaside Ulee Lheue.

After the Boxing Day catastrophe in 2004 this two-storey structure surrounded by debris, death and destruction became one of the defining images of the disaster.

So when the APJC brought 10 reporters and a photographer to Indonesia a few months later we naturally wanted to get to Aceh and see “ground zero” for ourselves.

We soon found ourselves at the house. Then it seemed a curio – well-built, substantial and surrounded by an endless and hopeless horizon of matchwood.

It had survived where lesser dwellings, and all too many of those who lived in them, had literally been swept away and mangled to splinters.

2014-Aceh-wrecked-home-572x388PHOTO: The wrecked house in the seaside town of Ulee Lheue, preserved as it stood as a memorial. (Supplied: Christopher Zinn)

Whoever had lived in the big house must have been rich – but if they had survived we did not know.

We knew a little more about the neighbours after engaging with former fishermen in makeshift cafes as they freely recounted their horrors and losses.

Everyone had a story then. Few, if any, declined to answer questions and now reviewing the camera tapes I shot (for a story on Channel Nine’s now defunct Sunday program) it is striking how openly they talked in graphic detail.

We moved on to see other sites, more officials, interviews, roach-infested hotels and many rebuilding projects that were then beginning to get off the ground.

We had had our adventure, filed our stories, and kept a special feeling for the remarkable people we had met. We went back to life in the comfort of Australia.

Three return to see changes in Ulee Lheue

Fast forward almost a decade and out of the blue the invitation to return to Aceh with the APJC comes through.

Of the 10 originals some are no longer in journalism, like me, or could not make it. But three of us turned up in Banda Aceh to see how it has changed since those desperate days.

On one of our first days with our fixer Hotli we go back to Ulee Lheue. At first glance to untrained eyes it might be any Indonesian settlement – noisy, busy and full of people.

It is as if nothing had happened. The homes and buildings are less than 10 years old although with the harsh weathering of the tropics they hardly seem it. The roads have been built wider to allow faster escape should the unthinkable happen again.

But you cannot avoid some new stand-out additions. One is a massive, indestructible, four-storey structure called the escape house, where thousands of people can shelter from any storm or tsunami on the top floor.

2014-Aceh-escape-house-572x366PHOTO: The Escape House at Ulee Lheue built in case of another tsunami. (Supplied: Christopher Zinn)

From the vantage point we surveyed the landscape and spied a familiar building. It was that wrecked house preserved as it stood as a memorial to the many dead in the area.

You can freely walk around it. Touch the tiles. Stand on the balcony. Read the plaque of 400 victims often simple short names and try to imagine what happened here.

Then around the corner came an unexpected and chilling moment. A copy of that historic photo mounted on a wall of the house surrounded by detritus and death.

Ten years before we had only seen the devastated Banda Aceh and I was so caught up in the damage in the here and now I never realised properly what it had once been.

However in 2014 through the time machine of travel and back in a vibrant Ulee Lheue I could see, hear and smell a living community going about their daily lives.

This was and remains a real shock. All this everyday life swept away in an instant. Yet it was a chance encounter with a photo and returning to Aceh which has brought back the enormity of what happened on Boxing Day 2004.

This article was originally published here.

Christopher ZinnĀ first travelled to Aceh with APJC in 2005, and returned with APJC in 2014.