On December 26, 2004, water rushed into the city of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, located at the tip of Northern Sumatra. Many thought the looming grey background was the overcast sky, until a series of large waves four stories high engulfed the city, traveling five miles inland.
The people of Banda Aceh never knew what a "normal" life was before the 2004 tsunami, which killed about 160,000 people in Aceh Province. They lived with 30 years of war in a politically unstable region. It was as unstable as the earthquakes that haunt the country.
After the tsunami, hundreds of international aid organizations rebuilt the city and surrounding villages, leaving residents to create a new economy; with a renewed sense of peace and progress. Thanks to the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the rebel separatist army, the Free Aceh Movement, the people of Aceh can freely travel about in their own city with the daily buzz of motorbikes and calls to prayer and without military checkpoints and political strife.
Although Indonesian clerics have taught that the great tsunami was a punishment for people’s sins, many Acehnese feel that the tsunami was a blessing that forced peace upon their land.
In 2003, the provincial government of Aceh Province implemented a moderate form of sharia law on conduct and dress in their effort to reclaim Aceh as the Islamic capital of SE Asia. They established a special unit, the Wilayatul Hibah, to patrol the streets looking for people drinking alcohol, gambling, unmarried couples sitting too close, engaged in pre-marital sex, and women wearing tight clothes or not wearing an Islamic headscarf, the jilbab.
Aceh Province is the only province in Indonesia to endorse Islamic law. Banda Aceh is also known as the “Veranda to Mecca,” where Islam’s influence first entered Indonesia. In September 2009, the Aceh Legislative Council endorsed a law legalizing caning and stoning of adulterers, and the flogging of homosexuals. Many Acehnese say the sharia law has become stricter since the tsunami.
I traveled to Banda Aceh the year I was laid off from my newspaper job. The layoff was blessing in disguise and enabled me to finally pursue stories outside of readership coverage areas, and to pursue stories that held a great interest to me. I knew that most newspapers would use wire pictures from the fifth anniversary, so I decided to go and tell a story about the daily lives of the Acehnese that the wires didn’t cover. I hoped the essay would show daily life beyond recovery, and the crossroads of their future and the growth of Islamic law in the region.
A portion of this essay was featured on NPR’s The Picture Show blog for the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2009/12/banda_aceh.html