Walking around Calang and seeing houses, mosques, schools, shops and even hotels, it’s almost unimaginable that just a bit over six years ago this place had been flatten—not just flattened but destroyed beyond recognition. Calang was what became known as ‘Ground Zero’ as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. This area in Aceh Jaya, on the west coast of Sumatra, took the heaviest brunt of the killer wave, more than 80 percent of the people died, the sea water washed away everything in its wake—homes, schools, hospitals, mosques, businesses, roads, bridges, coast line, land, hills, communities, memories and almost everything else that makes a place … a place.

Aerial photos of the before and after that are part of the repository of the many organisations that worked in Calang immediately after the disaster give a tangible overview of what was left of the place that December 26, 2004. Somehow, the reconstruction began in earnest, and most of the physical aspect of Calang has regained a semblance of normalcy. But when you have so little left, where do you start to reconstruct?

This question has been crawling its way around my head for a while now, at least since I’ve been part of communities that have been completely disrupted and uprooted as a result of conflict or natural disasters. I have been trying to understand whether it is possible, or even desirable, when the damage is so profound and extreme, to reconstruct, as in pick up the pieces and try to put them back together, or you need to start from scratch, zero and create afresh. Some of the literature on the subject is now starting to consider this question. We read of ‘building back better’ approaches; ‘communities cannot be rebuilt, they build themselves’, rebuilding from within and so forth.

In and among communities of survivors the topic of tsunami is almost ever present; every discussion has at a least one element of sebelum tsunami (before tsunami), or setalah tsunami (after tsunami). It, the tsunami, is such a powerful milestone in the survivors’ memory that pervades almost every aspect of daily life. Whether people talk to me about it because they have the need to, or they feel it is what I want to hear, or a combination of both, it is still unclear to me. The fact is that even if the conversation is about football, or any other apparently mundane subject, somehow there creeps in a reference to the disaster.

In Calang I didn’t meet too many locals, as the majority of the people seem to come from elsewhere. My hosts confirmed that there aren’t that many locals as most died—sobering thought. So, in Calang, stronger than anywhere else, my thought was “if I were to be part of the reconstruction in a place that was so inconceivably destroyed, where would I start?” Chances are I’d start where everyone else did, hence the houses, mosques, schools, shops and even hotels. The physical reconstruction at least gives a sense that something has been happening, and for clearly different motivations, that is the point where most reconstruction efforts start.

At the risk of offending those who sweated and bled to reconstruct the place, I must admit that, despite my brief visit, and being awestruck by the natural beauty around Calang, I was left with a not so positive impression of what I found.  Without the opportunity to analyse or properly research the environment of post-disaster in Calang, my overall sensation was one of deeply rooted grief, bordering on depression, which is totally acceptable given the degree of trauma and suffering the place endured, and notwithstanding the many positive stories that can be recounted since reconstruction began.

I cannot but empathise with those who were left to pick up whatever pieces came under consideration in an effort to begin again. But that question surfaced again—how and why? I unsuccessfully tried to imagine what kind of pressure less than 20 percent of survivors must have experienced when they became the accidental custodians of everything their society once was—the social traits, customs, memories and so forth. And how can we entirely relay on a memory that has been so severely traumatised, when we consider how grief changes the perception we have of a person or a place? In addition, how would they begin to explain to themselves and others, how and why such events as tsunamis occur, when very quickly, different and contrasting messages from scientists, religious leaders and doomsdayers entered the discussion, especially when we consider the deep spirituality and god-fear of Islam.  

Those who were left, by necessity had to become the new leaders—civic and spiritual, teachers, health workers, shop keepers, cooks, agriculturalist, builders and the list goes on. In other words, within that less than 20 percent of survivors there must be the whole of what a society needs to keep going. One feels that a sense of community begins to restore itself when its members embrace the changes imposed on them by different sources and events, and they begin to rebuild their memories—a newborn in a house, a wedding, a funeral, a social or religious gathering and the like.

If indeed communities build themselves, Calang is a must priority case study for those who want or need to understand post-disaster reconstruction. The question is, does the Calang community want to be studied by outsiders?

I wish to acknowledge and thank the people of Calang for their warm hospitality, and in particular the good people at FH, Gopi, Rixon and Pina, for providing me with accommodation during my stay, and for teaching me to play domino. I’m afraid I’ll never make a good player, but at least now I know what a Mexican train is.

 

Fotos: Calang, Aceh Jaya, ’11