South Asia Tsunami Five Years Later

In Aceh, on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, there is a village called Teungoh Blang Mee.

This village was near the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the 2004 tsunami, a succession of three destructive waves that claimed more than 300,000 lives in South Asia. Before the waves hit, Teungoh Blang Mee had 300 children. Afterward, there were only two.

In the face of such devastation, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee responded in a more comprehensive way than ever before, a response requiring a long-term presence in the area. CRWRC’s tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India spanned five years, from December 2004 through June 2009, and included everything from emergency supplies to rebuilt homes, from desalinated fields to new boats for fishermen.

There were many stories of destruction and loss of life in the months immediately after the tsunami, but slowly stories of hope and new life began to emerge.

The story of Armanisah is one such example.

Armanisah moved away from Teungoh Blang Mee about six months after the tsunami took the lives of her parents and siblings.

Before the tsunami, Armanisah was single and a teacher of traditional dance. But without her family, and with only two children remaining in the village, she moved to the city to look for work, recalls Mona Saroinsong, CRWRC program manager for tsunami relief in Indonesia.

Then the village asked her to move back.

In Indonesia, particularly in Aceh province, inheriting the family home is not only an asset but a cultural value. Surviving family members must take over the home of their relatives to maintain their family’s dignity. While sons inherit land, daughters inherit the house.

“In Aceh, land is a family thing,” Saroinsong says. “You can’t just give it away to someone else.”

For Armanisah, returning home meant returning to a life that no longer existed. Not only was her family gone, the tsunami had also wiped out the homes in the village that Armanisah once knew. Hundreds of people had died, and the fields were covered with silt and salt from the ocean, making farming difficult.

“They asked her to come back,” Saroinsong explains, “because her family home would not be rebuilt [one of the CRWRC-funded rebuilt homes] if she did not come back.

“The village had lost many people in the tsunami, and many traditions were disrupted. In order to preserve their community, they wanted surviving members to stay. The village persuaded Armanisah to come back.”

One important tradition in Indonesia is dance, which is often the centerpiece of festivals and community celebrations. But the tsunami left many dance troupes without enough members. Armanisah formed a group with two other women to teach traditional dancing to additional children in nearby villages and soon new dance troupes formed.

In June 2009 the villages came together for a week of celebration. “There was dinner and cultural performance, and all 28 villages in the district participated,” says Saroinsong. “Every afternoon we had games and activities for the children. Thousands of people came every night. It was a wonderful thing to see.”

Hope had returned to the village. Homes had been rebuilt, there was a harvest of rice from fields that had been cleared of silt, and businesses had been restored. But Armanisah and her village had even more to celebrate than just the restoration of their community. Armanisah was getting married.

“There was lots of food, and the children danced for their teacher,” says Saroinsong of the wedding celebration. “The community was so proud when she got married. She had been orphaned, but they all came together on behalf of her parents. And she was so happy to get the house. It meant that she and her husband had somewhere to live.”

Relief Aid as Christian Witness

Indonesia is largely Islamic, with some 85 percent of the population identifying themselves as Muslims. Accepting help from a Christian organization raised some eyebrows and suspicion among villagers.

That was not without reason. Tensions between Indonesian Christians and Muslims can sometimes run so high that violent clashes break out between the two groups, killing many and forcing families to flee for safety. A Christian group serving a Muslim population is not common.

Given this reality, CRWRC partnered with a local organization, Percik, to form GenAssist. Short for “General Assistance,” GenAssist also offered a play on the word “Genesis” or “new beginning,” which is what CRWRC hoped to offer this devastated land.

“They know that we are a Christian organization,” says Saroinsong. “I always said that if they want to accept our help, OK, but if not, that’s no problem.”

Yet almost all the affected communities did accept CRWRC’s help. They were impressed by what they saw. CRWRC’s GenAssist staff comprised about 50 people—Muslims and Christians alike—who worked side by side to carry out community programs.

“The work of GenAssist was a testimony of what can happen when people recognize the humanity in each other, put aside their differences, and work together,” said Grace Weibe, CRWRC international disaster response program manager.

“Hopefully, the memory of GenAssist will continue to foster greater peace in the region.”

Though CRWRC does not evangelize in the traditional sense, its presence has been a strong witness to Christ’s love in many regions of the world not familiar with the gospel, including Indonesia.

“One of our implementing partners said that she was wondering why most of the aid coming to Aceh was not coming from Muslim countries,” recalls Saroinsong. “‘It’s amazing,’ she said. ‘Muslims have to learn that kind of giving too.’”

When asked why Christians give so generously, Saroinsong would say that it comes from having faith in Jesus Christ. “Love is something to share what we have and try to make the person we love to live better and to have love for others,” she explained to those who asked. “They’d say, ‘So love is the basis for your religion?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’”

About the Author

Stephanie Tombari is a senior writer with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee.

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