Aceh: the happier sequel

Aceh residents relieved no tsunami materialised after massive earthquake off Indonesia’s coast.

The ingredients were for a disaster that would be unimaginable, were it not also a potential re-run.

A massive earthquake, just offshore from Indonesia’s Aceh province a tsunami warning active.

Just over six years ago, the result was an actual tsunami so devastating that 170,000 died in that one province alone.

At Sydney airport, “Tsunami – The Return” was what I thought I was heading to cover.

It didn’t turn out that way. At a 4am stopover in Kuala Lumpur, the smartphones of all the journalists abroad started to buzz with better news. No tsunami had materialised. Damage was light. For some, that was the end of the trip.

Journalists told by their newsdesks to turn around and head home. Few deaths no story.

I carried on. How people dodged the bullet can be as interesting as any disaster. I took my connecting flights.  

Banda Aceh’s people know they were lucky. In 2004, so many died because so few expected what came. This time around was totally different. The moment two big earthquakes hit, everyone knew what could be coming next. 

They ran, cycled or drove to the hills. One man told me today that he didn’t even wait for the ground to stop shaking before he was in his car and driving.

All over this city there are mass graves and monuments to those who died in 2004. No one wanted any more of those.

And there won’t be. The earthquakes themselves – offshore – caused remarkably little damage onshore.

Most streets in Banda Aceh look untouched – you have to actively seek out those with buildings now partly reduced to rubble.

Banda Aceh on Thursday was a busy, bustling city: calls to prayer from the mosques, kick-backs from the exhausts of motorcycles. Everyday life fully functional.

Because of the nature of the earthquake – techtonic plates moving horizontally, not vertically – the tsunami never came.

A proviso, of course: there have been more than 30 significant aftershocks in the last 48 hours. I felt one myself earlier today.

But – and touch wood here – most aftershocks are smaller than their parent. This time around Aceh and its people appear to have got lucky, and they know it.  

For me, this wasn’t the story I expected to be covering – a low-key sequel. But it’s one that – unlike the original – seems to have had a happy ending.