Written by Zulfadli Yazab

The last day of this humanitarian project left us with some time before departure, we had the chance to visit two major landmarks in Banda Aceh namely Aceh Tsunami Museum and Baiturrahman Grand Mosque.

Banda Aceh, known to most Indonesians as 'Port of Mecca' is the capital and the largest city in Aceh. With Muslims comprising the majority of the population, it is often featured as home to a thousand mosques. Unsurprisingly, you could hear the call to prayer at almost every corner of the town and villages.

 The architecture of the Aceh Tsunami Museum is also intended to offer a place of refuge from future tsunamis, including an "escape hill" for visitors to run to.

The architecture of the Aceh Tsunami Museum is also intended to offer a place of refuge from future tsunamis, including an "escape hill" for visitors to run to.

We made a pit stop at the Aceh Tsunami Museum because it is an important landmark that was built as a result of an ultimately disastrous event. Most millennial would not have heard of this event - that is probably because you were a baby still! Back in 2004, a 9.3 earthquake hit the Indian Ocean and caused a massive 30m high tsunami affecting the coasts bordering the Indian Ocean. Aceh, being the closest to the epicenter had an estimated of 200,000 casualties from this incident. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.

 The names of the victims inscribed in one of the prayer chambers.

The names of the victims inscribed in one of the prayer chambers.

The museum showed recounts from those who lived, images of the aftermath, and collection of news coverage that shows the severity of the incident. It was so damaging it had some of us broke into tears empathizing victims of the incident.

More than a decade went by, and today we see Banda Aceh - the city that was worst hit, live life as usual. It bustles with cars and motorcycles honking weaving through lanes, bright and grand hotels offering local Ramadan buffet, but the one thing is different now - there are not many Acehnese living in Banda Aceh ever since then.

Report from our driver mentions that ever since the catastrophic wipe out, locals who used lived in Banda Aceh now have moved to its outskirts. Their reasons include practicality as it is further away from shoreline and of course, trauma. The city now is merely a place for work to them.

This left us reflecting how life would be if Singapore were to be in that place. In a state where life is a rat race, have we ever taken a moment stop and wonder what if tomorrow, the things that we have been taking for granted is taken away from us?

We may be spared from the agony of seeing our loved ones gone maybe because they pass on in the hospital, or some of them simply die in an accident but how would we feel and respond if we had seen someone dear to you, being dragged away by the high waves full of mud and debris going on high speed? It is something that is so close yet so far but it just has to make us feel helpless. At a point where there is no entity to blame, will we be that strong to face the loss?

While the relief tasks like educating children with art skills and helping households sustain through the distribution of food gave a sense of fulfilment, the visit to the museum heightens the sense of appreciation for living a sheltered life because sometimes we fail to see how lucky we are economically, socially, and in this context geographically. Had Indonesia islands did not exist, this little red dot would probably cease to exist.

The visit to Batiurrahman Grand Mosque was magical. The Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is a symbol of religion, culture, spirit, strength, struggle and nationalism of Acehnese people. The mosque is a landmark of Banda Aceh and has survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The mosque that was built since 1612 was refuge to the survivors of the 2004 tsunami. People were seen frantically climbing to the roof of the mosque. Being in that mosque awed us in several ways. For one, it was the very place that was hit by tsunami. Two, it symbolizes how much Acehnese were actually holding on to the belief that there is always hope in their place of worship. If you had heard the soundbites from survivors and news articles, for most of these survivors, the very first place that they ran to was the nearest mosque they could see. Amazingly, the centuries old mosque is still standing strong till today. In fact, it has been expanded with the installation of retractable umbrellas as seen in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina.

From a spiritual point of view, the mosque is a go-to place for anything. Even in Islamic holy scripture, Muslims are commanded to seek refuge in God in times of trouble. Naturally, the mosque is the closest place to the Acehnese when the waves came looming in. Hence, they believe that God had protected them for seeking refuge in Him in times of hardship.

On the other hand, science studies have also shown that most mosques in Aceh are actually well invested in terms of construction. Most of the mosques have strong pillars and with reinforced concrete. This is contrasting to most houses that are made of mainly planks and zinc given their socio-economic conditions.

Considering both aspects, there are several good takeaways from this study.

As a community, it is prudent that we invest in what is best for the community - while this may sound absurd for those who fall in the higher tax bracket. We simply need to relook at how it will benefit society as a whole when calamity strikes. In the case of the 2004 tsunami, not even the affluent tourist could save themselves. Hence, investment for the community be it in infrastructure, education and services is imperative and proven to be useful in times of trouble.

Education is important, even if it takes for an individual to know how to read. It goes a long way in making us understand the world better. Statistically education raises the standard of living through employment which consequently creates wealth. The combination of knowledge and spending power cascades to higher aspirations. Unfortunately for the Acehnese, most of them were farmers and villagers with minuscule to live with. As a result, they do not have the outlay to build stronger homes to survive an earthquake.

We must always be prepared but we should also not fret on losses in life as nothing last forever. We should learn to share, give and be willing to let go if the time comes. In other words, not only we must be financially (e.g insurance and succession), physically (e.g strong home) prepared but we have to be able to control our emotions to move on and make rational decisions if all else fails. 

The takeaways are unlimited. If you have been to Aceh and have a thought about how the lessons can be applied in our context, feel free to share! We 'Maju' together!

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