Journal from the Ground
by Mazalan Kamis
Trip to Meulaboh
This is certainly the worst day for me in Aceh. I have been having
stomach discomfort for the last two days, and it just gets worse when I
wake up this morning. Saiful talked about canceling the trip last night,
but I objected since this could be my one and only chance to visit the
place. In fact, with the recent announcement concerning the registration
(read: restriction) of foreigners in Aceh, this can be my chance of a
lifetime to visit as many places as possible in Aceh.
The one hour journey by a twin-otter aircraft is made possible by a UN
agency. Any UN-registered non-governmental organization can utilize the
service. Our arrival at the tiny airport of Meulaboh is met by a UN
agency official who helps to get us around the township. I have to admit
that the last thing that I expect to find in a tiny airport is a
‘Starbucks’! Yes, there it is, conspicuously placed right within the
compound of the airport, the Starbucks greets every visitor to Meulaboh.
We have our breakfast and lunch there.
Posing in front of the aircraft
before taking off to Meulaboh.
Meulaboh has its own Starbucks!
Warkop (an acronym for Warong Kopi meaning Coffee Stall)
Starbucks provides delicious Acehnese meals to many visitors to
Our first stop is a Meulaboh Elementary School. All the furniture on the
ground floor of the building was swept away by the tsunami. Other than
minor damages, the school is in a surprisingly good condition. However,
many of the children we meet tell us that their houses were also swept
away by the tsunami. Saiful and I have a short discussion with two
teachers about the kinds of assistance the school has been receiving.
However, we stop short of offering significant assistance to the school
since we know that Aceh Relief Fund has a limited capacity to expand its
operation into Meulaboh.
I am surrounded by a group of
school children. They are always happy to interact with
foreigners visiting their school.
Our next stop is a Medan-based relief organization that Saiful used to
work with. Like many other relief organizations, it has phased out its
emergency relief operation and now is focusing on building
semi-permanent houses in a village in Meulaboh. Villages here are much
smaller in size compared to those in Banda Aceh. For example, the
village plan for reconstruction by this organization has less than
twenty houses, and it is located away from the sea.
Listening attentively to a
presentation on plan redevelopment of a village by a Medan based
The plan for the semi-permanent
home is drawn by a professional architect from Medan, Indonesia.
Later we tour the area worst hit by Tsunami in Meulaboh. What was once a
city is now just a flat landfills brimming with rubble. Some parts have
already been cleared, but for most the rubble is almost untouched. By
now I have a stronger sense that the Acehese will have to continue
living amidst such rubble for a lot longer. It is a pity that Jakarta
has been sending mixed signals about how Aceh will eventually be
rebuilt. In the mean time, the victims continue to suffer…
I see only rubble that stretches to
After touring the destructive areas, we decide to pay a visit to An-Nisa,
a Meulaboh based organization, specially focused on helping women
rebuild their lives after the tsunami. An-Nisa has been an active
women’s organization in Meulaboh even before the tsunami. The
organization has extensive outreach programs to help women to
participate in income generating activities, but many women are still
distraught by the disaster and find it hard to participate in such
activities. I am sad to learn that thus far, An-Nisa is yet to receive
adequate funding to effectively finance their activities.
Talking to the founder of An-Nisa
who is a brilliant, progressive woman with excellent oratory
Upon hearing that a well-known public figure is giving a lecture on the
need for a peaceful solution for the ‘new’ Aceh at Meulaboh City Hall,
we decide to head to the venue. I have to admit that I am not impressed
by the presentation, but am rather awestruck by the sheer size and
grandeur of the venue. Situated amidst a shabby city, the Hall stands
out like a sore thumb. While basic necessities for the general public
remain less than satisfactory, the authority rewards itself by building
a grand ‘palace’ so that they can work in great comfort!
A huge amount of money must have
been spent to build the Meulaboh City Hall.
By late evening we are back in Banda Aceh. I succumb to bed early since
besides my stomach discomfort I am also suffering from an excruciating
headache. Saiful continues the night with another meeting with a group
of Acehnese espousing civil rights in Aceh. Saiful has been planning to
introduce me to this group, but my condition does not permit that to
happen, despite the meeting being held in a room next to where I am
After a long day in Meulaboh,
Saiful still has the energy to chair another meeting that lasts
late into the night.