The tsunami hit 16 years ago. Here’s how the world came together to help the victims rebuild their lives
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined with other organizations on a remarkable years-long project to rebuild homes and schools
Editor’s note: Deseret News journalists Tad Walch and Ravell Call traveled to Indonesia in November to chronicle the recovery of a people devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, and the recovery efforts joined by Latter-day Saints Charities. This story was originally published on Dec. 25, 2019.
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Sixteen years ago on Dec. 26, 2004, hundreds of thousands of people ran for their lives. For nearly a quarter million of them, there was no escape.
Primal instinct drove one woman, who was seven months pregnant, to sprint inland from her home near the Indian Ocean. She ran alongside her husband, her grandmother, her parents and her 3-year-old sister.
Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, could not have outrun the unseen monster that chased them.
They heard the killer before they saw it, a terrible rumbling sound gaining on them. Behind them, fleeing fishermen screamed. The family held hands as they ran. The pregnant woman and her father each clutched one of the 3-year-old’s hands in one of their own. Her parents held hands. The grandmother lagged behind.
Suddenly, their legs felt heavier. Something started to suck them backward. A 15-foot wave from the deadliest tsunami in recorded human history swept the women and the girl off their feet. The pregnant woman lost her grip on the 3-year-old’s hand and couldn’t find her. The undercurrent swiftly dragged her back toward her farm.
She saw her mother struggle as she herself recovered to run through mud and debris and grab her husband’s shirt collar from behind. When she turned to look for her grandmother, mother and sister, she saw an even more prodigious beast, a dark wall of fast water more than 30 feet high.
She saw it swallow her grandmother and mother.
Then it swept her and her husband off their feet and buried them in black ocean water. The monster wave roared and churned them like a giant commercial washing machine, spinning them around and around, ripping off all her clothes and battering them with debris.
She clung with all her might to the collar of her husband’s t-shirt. A coconut tree trunk bashed her in the head, dazing her.
Buried under swirling saltwater, it filled her mouth, nose, ears and throat. She swallowed great gulps of it. The taste was disgusting, ugly.
Pregnant with her first child and 23 years old, Husnul Khatimah submitted herself to God’s will.
Unholy power and speed
Tsunami waves are not normal. Normal waves hit land and slow down. Tsunami waves hit land and accelerate. Scientists determined earlier this year that the tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia and several other countries on Boxing Day 2004 — the day after Christmas — traveled up to 50 feet per second.
Usain Bolt at his fastest ran 40 feet per second.
The tsunami’s waves caught and killed nearly 230,000 people across multiple countries, wiped away entire villages and tossed boats miles inland. The disaster horrified the world. But it also brought it together.
About 700 organizations mobilized $14 billion in aid, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members contributed more after the faith’s monthly fast on Jan. 2, 2005, so the church could “increase its aid to those whose suffering is so great.”
The church embarked on its longest-term humanitarian project at the time. In all, it provided $17 million in aid in Indonesia — from short-term help like body bags, food and medical supplies to long-term help like building homes and schools. It gave additional millions in assistance to other affected nations.
The suffering had an extraordinary source. It all began on a megathrust fault 31 miles beneath the Indian Ocean. For an unholy 10 minutes — the longest faulting ever observed — an earthquake ruptured along a 900-mile stretch between the Indian and Australian continental plates. That fault length is the largest of any recorded quake, about the distance between Boston and Chicago.
It was the third-strongest earthquake of the past 120 years — 9.1 magnitude. It generated an otherworldly amount of power. The quake transferred twice the energy of all the bombs of World War II to the water above and around it and sent it racing across the ocean toward land and people.
The city of Banda Aceh sits on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. The nickname for Aceh Province is “the Porch of Mecca” because it is the closest part of the Muslim country to Saudi Arabia.
Aceh (pronounced at-Jeh or a-Chey) also was the closest land to the earthquake. And home to Husnul and her family.
The first waves arrived in 20 minutes. One towered 130 feet in the air when it hit the city.
Water becomes the enemy
Water is a friend to Indonesians. Their nation consists of 17,500 islands. Water sustains their economy. Driving through the countryside, it seems like a quarter of the land is submerged for rice paddies and shrimp farms.
Indonesians are accustomed to muddy brown streams, brown rivers and brown paddies. When they describe tsunami water as dark, a common term, they mean black. Dark black. Revolting. Filthy. Putrid like sulfur.
Zalmuhra took his 22-foot fishing boat out in normal ocean water just before midnight on Christmas Day. He returned from the sea at 6:30 a.m. with no fish. He stored his 165-foot fishing net because there was a full moon. Ironically, a full moon often produces waves too high for fishing.
The earthquake struck at 7:59 a.m. as he cleaned the boat. It swayed despite being on shore.
Three football fields away, his pregnant wife Husnul was hungry. She craved asparagus stew with crab. She and her mother and grandmother had started a wood fire in her mother’s home. The stew was cooking when they heard a terrific boom roll in from the ocean.
“It sounded,” one Indonesian recalls, “like something big hit something powerfully.”
The earthquake spilled the stew.
Back at the shore, Zalmuhra and the other fishermen marveled as the water withdrew into the ocean, exposing fish on the ocean floor. They ran to grab them. Before Zalmuhra could pick one up, he saw a dark wave about 10 feet tall.
His running began. Naturally, the wave caught him. It took his feet out from under him. He knew his ankle was sprained, but he didn’t feel the pain as he got back up and sprinted toward home.
“I was panicked,” he says. “I was running home. I didn’t think about the house. All I could think about was my wife, her grandmother and my mother-in-law.”
The first wave hadn’t been big enough to reach the home, and none of them knew a monstrous second wave was hurtling toward them, but Zalmuhra gathered them up and they started down the road as fast as they could. They made it about 100 yards before the second wave sped through them and crashed on top of them.
Four traumatic losses
Husnul remained conscious. Otherwise, she likely would have drowned. When the churning stopped, she remained spent and disoriented amid the debris on the ground — leaves, branches, tree trunks, coconuts, pieces and parts of houses and lives. She wanted to stand and try to help three generations worth of love in her life, but she couldn’t walk.
Zalmuhra found Husnul’s mother next to them, dead. They found her grandmother’s body the next day. It took another 11 days to uncover the body of her baby sister, stuck under a raft in a small stream about 50 yards from where the second wave crushed them. A crocodile had taken her left arm.
“Her face was covered by her hair and was OK,” Husnul says, her own head covered by a black hijab.
The fact is important to her, but she looks down as she says it. As she does, the fingers of one of her strong hands pick repeatedly and aggressively at the white patterns in her red skirt.
Her losses are among the 13 people killed in Kiran Baru, a village of 400. Other areas fared far worse. Entire villages were wiped off the face of the earth. A total of 167,540 Indonesians died or remain missing.
As the couple tells their story, it’s clear neither talks about it often.
“If we could, we would forget about that,” Zalmuhra says. “It brings back traumatic memories.”
“We didn’t even know the wave that hit us was called a tsunami,” he says. “We learned that term three days later. I hope it never happens again.”
The sadness and suffering don’t end here.
People from the neighboring village came and carried her away to safety. They grabbed someone else’s pants stuck to a house, covered her and took her to a place well above sea level before a final devastating wave arrived. By then, Zalmuhra’s ankle throbbed. He and Husnul would remain on higher ground for months, living in a tsunami relief camp.
Husnul gave birth there. The child lived two days and died. She blames the death on the nauseating water she ingested.
There is a stunning display in the Aceh Tsunami Museum. The cylindrical room is underground and dark. Spare lights illuminate names in white letters in rows in a round ascending to the ceiling, where a small opening allows in some sunlight. Could this be what Husnul felt while she was buried underwater, her loved ones spinning around her with the sun far above?
Her child’s name is not part of that display, but Husnul considers that baby Indonesia’s 167,541st and final tsunami victim.
When they returned to their land, the house “was flat,” they say. Everything was gone. Only rubbish remained. And a few trees. Their magnificent mango tree survived the tsunami.
Now 42 and 38, Zalmuhra and Husnul live on exactly the same plot of land where Husnul cooked the asparagus and crab stew with her mother and grandmother.
They live in a house built by the International Organization for Migration with funding from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church provided nearly $10 million for the International Organization for Migration to build 902 homes in the area. Theirs is smaller than the one they had before. It is now home for them and their three children — a boy named Zahril, 13, and two girls, Insafwati, 9, Nurul Aquila, 3. They are grateful.
“We were deeply touched,” Zalmuhra says. “We didn’t expect that. We didn’t expect that to come into our life.”
“The house is very helpful and very useful,” Husnul says, beaming one of her ready and large, toothy smiles. She is sitting on her cement porch, leaning against the yellow-colored cement siding. “We feel very blessed.”
Abdullah Ali, now 50, felt the same way when International Organization for Migration, with the donated funds, built a home for his family after they spent two years in a tsunami victim camp.
On the morning of the tsunami, his wife, Ainol Mardiyah, now 46, woke early to start cooking a breakfast of rice, fish and eggs. The earthquake shook their house, waking Abdullah.
“The window cracked,” he says, sitting in the dark with his cousin on a wooden bench in front of the house, smoking cloves and looking at the navigation stars. A cacaphony of crickets and frogs compete to be heard. Abdullah pauses as the nearby mosque issues the call to prayer and a man recites from the Koran over a loudspeaker. “The wall cracked. The roof cracked. I was afraid. Slowly, our house started to fall apart, little by little. It was a very strong earthquake.”
People began to yell that the water in the sea was drawing out. They knew what that meant, and ran for their lives. Their real concern was for their two children, 12 and 5, who had gone out to play.
“We were panicking because we did not know where our kids were exactly. We worried maybe they’d been down by the ocean and swept away,” Abdullah says. “The kids were looking for us. We were looking for them. We cried when we found them. They were crying; they were afraid they’d lost us. We were so touched we were so lucky.”
They ran for half an hour. When they returned home three days later, their house and all their property was gone. Their third child was born 15 months later in the camp, where the family lived crowded into a shelter divided by cubicles.
When the International Organization for Migration announced it would build them a house, the impoverished family rejoiced.
“We asked, ‘Is this true?’ They didn’t charge us a cent,” he said.
The stories of the schools built with funds provided by Latter-day Saints are difficult to hear.
A translator cried a month ago when an elementary principal described two schools obliterated by the tsunami on the west side of the island. The schools are closer to the earthquake than where the church built homes, and the road to them is lined with palm oil trees and hard-working people laboring in rice paddies. Water buffalo and brown cattle share the road with families perched on motorbikes.
None of the children were at school that day, because it was a Sunday. Only a handful would ever return.
The tsunami savaged the village of Suak Seukee, killing 700 of the 1,000 residents. Yusran — the principal goes by a single name, like many Indonesians — was a teacher at another school, but he went to the camps to look for children from both schools. What he found devastated him. Of the 150 students of the Suak Seukee Madrasah, he says, “We found only six of them alive.” At his own school, 70 of 90 died.
The tsunami made orphans of most of the remaining children.
“I spent my days with them,” he says of the schoolchildren he lost. “I felt terrible when they died because I’d spent my time with them teaching them. I loved them.”
The rest of his emotional response is lost to history. The translator couldn’t continue. Ten teachers between the two schools also died, all of them women.
The ocean’s ferocity wiped away both school buildings, too. In all, the tsunami destroyed 90 of the 117 schools in Aceh Province.
“Suak Seukee Madrasah was decimated,” he says. “Everything above the foundation was gone. The tsunami even took the foundation. Even the pillars buried under the school foundation were gone, as if they’d been excavated by the wave.”
Yusran admits he complained in the following months about his own living conditions in the relief camp — he spent two years in a tent — but he plunged into his work. He started an emergency school, combining the 26 remaining students from the two schools in a temporary building provided by the government. The building had a cement floor with plywood walls and a corrugated tin roof. Rain was deafening. Sun produced brutal heat. He used his own education and knowledge to teach the children until UNICEF provided materials and uniforms.
“It was tough,” he says. “You have to be strong to recover. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard. I remembered God, the Almighty. My faith helped me.”
Today, Yusran is the headmaster at Suak Seukee Madrasah. Behind him, a 12-year-old certificate hangs on the wall.
“This school was reconstructed with the financial assistance of Latter-day Saint Charities,” it states, “as part of the response program in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, Aceh Barat, Indonesia, following the earthquake and tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004.”
It is signed by the director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency of Indonesia, the church charity’s construction partner on the project. In all, the church funded the construction of 15 new madrasahs in Aceh at a cost of more than $2.6 million.
“I was very happy to receive this new school building,” Yusran says. “I’m thankful to this day. It’s a good school on a good foundation. It has survived several earthquakes. We don’t see any cracks. In the quaking, it stands firm. Other schools built at the time have cracks in the walls.”
All 26 students who survived the tsunami and restarted school here have graduated. Now they are in their 20s. Ten of them went on to university, the principal says proudly.
“I feel like I fulfilled my duty,” he says. “I trusted in God, and he helped us through. I’m a very dedicated Muslim. I was submissive to the will of God.”
Today, Suak Seukee Madrasah is thriving under Yusran’s tutelage with 85 students.
On one recent afternoon as the school day was ending, children in brown or blue uniforms, the girls in hijabs, poured out of school’s six classrooms, library around foreign visitors with huge smiles and little English.
“Your name is?” they shouted. There names are Rosa, Aurora, Bella, Vidya. They are happy. Around the corner, some of their mothers sit on motorbikes in their hijabs and long dresses. Some have little children with them. They talk together, waiting to pick up their boys and girls from school.
End of the earth?
Erlina Mariana’s mother was selling rice near Banda Aceh’s coastline on Boxing Day 2004. Erlina was 18 and standing in the thin strip of road between their house, which had swayed in the earthquake, and the white house that become the memorial when she heard her mother yelling. She looked up and saw her mother rounding the corner onto Tanjung Lane as fast as she could.
“Go upstairs,” she screamed, pointing at the two-story white house.
“I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Erlina says late on a recent morning. Six heavily salted fish are drying on a metal rack suspended above her porch by an orange string. “Then I saw the water behind my mom. There was a flash flood chasing her on the ground and looming above her was a wave of black water.”
Erlina and her sister, sister-in-law, nephew and cousin made it into the white house in time. They huddled with dozens of others as a second wave struck. Then a third wave carried a large fishing boat from the river, over a couple of blocks of buildings, and dropped it right on the white house. It remains there to this day as a solemn reminder and a symbol of hope.
The boat became the refuge for 59 people. They watched 20 large waves erode the city for the next seven hours until, at 4 p.m., the water receded to waist high. The survivors waded to the center of the city as dead bodies floated in the water.
“We said, ‘Oh, my God, is this the end of the earth?’” Erlina says. “We’d never experienced a tsunami. It’s not like it’s Japan, where earthquakes happen every year. We haven’t had a tsunami since 2011. Now, when we have a big earthquake, we all go outside and find high ground.”
Humbled and intimidated
Photos at the Aceh Tsunami Museum reveal the sheer exhaustion of those the ocean engulfed but did not kill. Fear is etched on the survivors’ faces. They are utterly defeated, aching, bereft.
Aid workers were equally cowed by the scope of the megadisaster in Banda Aceh, “the edge of the earth,” says Rich McKenna, who at the time was the director of Humanitarian Services for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“The suffering of the people was mind-boggling. It was probably as humbling and intimidating as anything I’ve ever been involved with,” he says. “It was definitely overwhelming in every respect. The church had never done anything of that magnitude before — a commitment of three years to help rebuild places in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.”
The church’s first cargo plane left on Dec. 30 with short-term aid — food, blankets and medical, hygiene and sanitary supplies, says Nate Leishman, then the church’s manager of Emergency Response.
The church also provided 50,000 body bags to Indonesia to help bury the dead.
Over more than three years, it also completed clean water projects, helped build, rebuild and equip hospitals — rehab equipment bearing the Latter-day Saint Charities logo is still in use in many — and bought and donated school buses, computer equipment for libraries, sewing machines and fishing boats and motors to restore survivors’ livelihoods.
One of the most touching displays at the museum is a set of paper-cut art that depicts people standing on high ground amid roiling waves. They are holding hands in a line down to people they are pulling from the ocean. Above them is a tree of life with the names of countries that provided aid. Two men in the middle raise their hands in joy over those saved and the help received.
“They changed my life,” McKenna says, “just to see their example of independence and self-reliance, to be in a situation where they’d lost everything and didn’t despair. It was inspirational to me to watch as, through their faith in God — in their case, in Allah — and faith in their neighbors and then faith in their own God-given capabilities and resources, they rebuilt their lives that had been totally destroyed.”