Thursday, March 31, 2011

He Survived Two of the Biggest Tsunamis in Recent History

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Japan tsunami: Aceh man who also survived Sendai wave
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Aceh

A light aircraft sits amongst the debris from the 11 March tsunami at Sendai Airport near Sendai, Miyagi prefecture

When the huge earthquake and tsunami hit Japan earlier this month, the disaster brought back painful memories for the people of Aceh.

The Indonesian province bore the brunt of the huge Asian tsunami in 2004. Of the 220,000 people who died, 170,000 of them were in Aceh.

"When I saw what happened in Japan, it looked exactly the same as what happened here," said Sofian, a 55-year-old man whose wife and two children were among those who lost their lives.

Zahrul Fuadi was on the third floor of a building in Sendai when the quake struck

"The water looked just the same. It was dirty, and it carried all sorts of things in it," he added, like cars, masonry and even ships.

It was the first time many Acehnese had actually seen what a giant tsunami looks like. Many of those who survived were too busy trying to escape to have time to look behind them to see what was coming.

And while there are plenty of gruesome images from the aftermath of the Aceh tsunami - swollen corpses littering the streets, villages that were completely flattened - there is hardly any footage of the wall of water that came barrelling on to the shore.

'God saved me'

One Acehnese man, in particular, had cause to relive the whole experience. After surviving the tsunami in Aceh, Zahrul Fuadi was then caught up in the disaster in Japan, making him perhaps unique in surviving two of the biggest tsunamis in recent history.

In the Aceh disaster, he and his family only escaped in time by piling on to a small motorbike and riding up to the hills.

The motorbike is still in pride of place, just outside his house in the suburbs of the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

"God saved me with this motorcycle, and I intend to keep this for all of my life," he said.

In the months after the Aceh disaster, Mr Fuadi, 39, moved to a university in Sendai, in northern Japan, to study for a PhD. He admits that part of the reason for his move was to get away from the carnage.

He was still in Sendai earlier this month - it was one of the areas worst hit by the Japanese tsunami.

"I was on the third floor attending a seminar when the earthquake came. Suddenly I felt a shock, and then the shock continued. I suddenly remembered the earthquake in 2004 - this shock lasted a long time too, and I thought a tsunami might come, " he said.

His university building is far enough away from the coast that he did not have to flee the oncoming wave this time, but in sub-zero temperatures, with a small baby and no electricity or water, he decided to take his wife and three children to an evacuation centre, from where they soon returned to Aceh.

Revisiting the past
Now he is back in his hometown, Mr Fuadi has a chance to see how things have changed in the six-and-a-half years since the Aceh tsunami.

As we drove down a road about a kilometre from the coast, he described the scene when he first saw it after the disaster.

"It was a complete mess. Dead bodies were everywhere - piles of bodies. This road is about 12 metres wide, but at that time only one car could pass through at a time because of the rubbish. You could find dead bodies every three or four metres," he said.

Now, the road is well-kept and even. Entire villages on both sides have been rebuilt - mostly by international aid agencies - and there are even special signs directing people where to go in case another tsunami happens.

It's a sharp contrast to when the disaster happened. Most Acehnese - even an academic like Mr Fuadi - had never even heard of the word tsunami, and had no idea of the dangers they could bring.

Compared to the level of preparedness there was in Japan, he said, there was little planning and little information.

But now things are different - there are evacuation centres and warning systems, and the level of education is far higher.

"We've learned a lot - so I hope that if it happens again there will be much less loss of life," Mr Fuadi said.

And in many respects, life is back to normal now.

"It's exactly the same as it was before," said Fauzan, a 27-year-old driver.

Central Banda Aceh is once again bustling with traffic, and there are hotels, fast food outlets and advertising hoardings like any other Indonesian city.


But while buildings and infrastructure can be repaired, internal scars take longer to heal.

Earlier this month a false rumour of an approaching tsunami caused widespread panic. One woman died of a heart attack, and a man had to be treated in hospital after jumping from the second storey of his house after seeing people running away from the coast.

Mr Fuadi is returning to Japan this week. His family arrived in Aceh with little more than the clothes on their backs - he needs to safeguard their belongings and return to his research.

But in the long term he plans to return to Banda Aceh, despite the risk of being caught up in yet another tsunami.

"Any place in the world has its own risk of disaster. If you go into the road, a car could strike you… there is always danger everywhere," he said.

For now he's just grateful to be alive. "I've survived two huge disasters. Not many people have done that."

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