| Ahmad Pathoni |
Banda Aceh, Indonesia (dpa) – Nasrul Affan clutched his three-year-old son tightly as he recounted how he survived the tsunami that devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province 10 years ago.
“It feels as if it happened yesterday,” said Nasrul, 42, while wiping tears from his eyes. “Not a single day passes without me remembering it.”
Nasrul was en route to his shoe shop in a Banda Aceh market when a massive 9.3-magnitude earthquake struck on the morning of December 26, 2004.
Fearing for his family, he returned home, but encountered waves as high as coconut trees that flattened everything in their path.
He was thrown into the sea but managed to swim ashore. His wife and two small children were never found.
Of about 200 people who survived the tsunami in the Baro village in Meuraxa district, around 80 per cent were males, said Nasrul.
“There were only a handful of women and children in this village after the tsunami,” Nasrul said.
A 2005 study by the United National Population Fund found a gender imbalance in 16 Aceh villages as a result of the tsunami, as many more women than men died.
In a separate report, Oxfam said only one in three survivors were women in four villages it surveyed.
Survivors said even though many children and women in Aceh’s coastal areas could swim, they were not strong enough to withstand the waves that destroyed even the strongest structures.
Another explanation was that some of the men were also at sea when the disaster struck, and escaped the devastation that hit the shore.
Many survivors were quick to remarry, keen to get on with their new lives.
Nasrul married a woman from a nearby district in 2005 and the couple now has one child.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to get married again because I had nothing at that time, but I had to move on and start my life all over again,” he said, sitting on the porch of his modest 35-square-metre house, overlooking the sea.
With his shoe business lost to the tsunami, Nasrul turned to the sea and decided to become a fisherman, like many of his fellow villagers.
He earns about 10 dollars a day.
“Acehnese usually take time to get remarried after their spouses die, but after the tsunami, people got remarried quickly,” said Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, co-founder of Flower Aceh, an organisation set up to champion the rights of Acehnese women.
“They had big families and suddenly they were alone, so they felt the need to have new companions,” she said.
In Aceh, like many other areas in Indonesia, male and female roles follow a traditional pattern, with husbands being the breadwinners while wives stay at home taking care of children.
Ahlan Yatim, a soft-spoken, 43-year-old fisherman in Deah Glumpang village, said he remarried in 2007 to get a semblance of normalcy after his two young children and wife died in the tsunami.
“I was so depressed that I often talked to myself,” said Ahlan, his voice faint, almost whispering.
“Nothing is the same any more, but I thank God I’m alive.”
He showed a faded photograph of him holding his first son, taken when he was only a year old.
The boy would be 17 today had he survived.
Ahlan now has a four-year-old son from his second marriage to a woman from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra.
“Men here used to marry women from the same area, but because there were so few women left here, they married women from outside,” he said.
Meuraxa, ground zero of the tsunami destruction, is today a bustling area with new businesses, restaurants, shops and wide, smoothly paved roads.
Neighbourhoods are teeming again with children and people have settled there from elsewhere to take advantage of new opportunities offered by rebuilding activities.
Banda Aceh Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal said 70,000 people in the city were killed by the tsunami, but the population is now almost the same as before the disaster, about 270,000.
“There’s no longer a (gender) imbalance,” said Illiza, the city’s first woman mayor. “Many survivors have married again, and they are multiplying fast.
“People who live in the coastal areas are faring better economically,” she said in her spacious office in the modern, glass city government headquarters, built after the tsunami.
“Pockets of poverty remain in areas that were not affected by the tsunami,” she said.
Suraiya, the activist, said the gender imbalance after the tsunami posed a challenge to initial rebuilding efforts.
“Because men outnumbered women, women had little say in decision-making and their needs were neglected,” she said.
Some quickly arranged marriages ended in divorce because couples did not know each other well, she said.
For Nurmala, who lost her three young children and husband, the disaster has made her more independent.
After the disaster, she worked as a volunteer for the American Red Cross for two years and met her future husband, an aid worker from West Java.