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Boxing Day tsunami — when humanity rose to the challenge

By Muhammad Zhariff Afandi
IN these current days when society is seeing so much dysfunction, disparity and division, my memories of being in Aceh after the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami disaster, are a strong reminder that the spirit of humanity is indeed still very much alive.
I was only 23 when the biggest recorded natural disaster hit the shores of areas surrounding the Indian Ocean. An enormous 9.3 seabed earthquake created a mega tsunami that hit Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, killing
230,000 people in fourteen countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 metres high.
It was also during this period I experienced one of those life-defining moments that would direct the course of my life forever. I was still in college during this period and was on semester break.
Beyond the news reports of the horrendous repercussions of the tsunami in Aceh, there were also calls for action, as volunteers were needed to assist in the relief efforts there. It was then that we (with my buddy Rin) decided we wanted to do our duty and do our part. We wanted to go to Aceh.
The journey to Western Sumatra was not straightforward.
We had to go through rejections, one after another, as we couldn’t get into the volunteer roster to Aceh. But our intentions were still strong. In the end, we smuggled ourselves into Banda Aceh via a 12-hour bus ride, and went straight into the thick of things.
It was during this time I witnessed the very best of how mankind has innately amazing abilities. This was all very evident during my nine months experience there. In my journey there, here are 3 notable things I found during my time in Aceh:
1. The ability to strive together.
Never had I witnessed mankind coming together, in the spirit of helping our fellow human beings, in such magnitude. While in Bandar Aceh, I met hundreds of volunteers, organizations and government aid workers from all corners of the world, including our very own Malaysia. The level of coordination between those who came to Aceh to give assistance, and the local authorities, people who not only were survivors, but there to assist in the process was inspiring to say the least.
Putting it into perspective, those involved in the relief and reconstruction process had to deal with more than 230,000 deaths, more than millions displaced from flattened homes, schools, malls, shops, roads, and pretty much everything. But in the end, everyone came together to do their part.
2. Our amazing ability to be compassionate, embrace the goodness of giving, and to go beyond the call of duty.
I met some amazing individuals who made the leap of faith and got their way to Aceh to directly assist in the relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of Aceh. Each one of them had an amazing story to tell on why and how they ended up there. A young girl named Ellyne was one of those individuals. She ended up joining us in our trip after coming across an open email we wrote before going to Aceh. This was well before Facebook, Twitter, and the likes, and all we had was email, and Friendster. Amazingly, that chain email we sent, which contained an open appeal to help us help Aceh went relatively far reaching. Even as far as not only inspiring others to actually come with us on this journey, but many who couldn’t, gave us the necessary funds, aid supplies, and logistical requirements we needed to make this humanitarian pilgrimage. One of my mom’s friend’s little five-year-old daughter gave her piggy bank savings to us to help the kids in Aceh. Just writing about it gives me that fuzzy warm goodness feeling.
3. Ultimately the ability to show strength and resilience in extreme conditions.
Those moments in Aceh to me showed indeed the epitome of mankind is still very much in us. One of the most glaring things I found was that beyond the deaths, the sufferings, and anguish, I also saw an amazing resilience in the souls of the survivors. Yes they had lost everything they had. Their homes. Their families. But they never lost their hope and spirit. Bapak Abdullah was one of those truly heroic individuals who could only save two of his children, but sadly lost one daughter. That grief he had though, spurred him to strive to not just be a victim, but to do his very best to help his fellow survivors. Pak Abdullah was integral in my personal experience there as he was instrumental in helping our humanitarian operations there. His local knowledge of the needs, situations, and locations of villages there was a huge help. He was one of the many inspirational local figures we met doing their part to repair their community.
Being there for more than nine months showed me how mankind can be truly amazing.
I met many more people who still inspire me till this day. Abang Chakra, the late Pak Dek, and the GEMMA 9 crew was integral in my personal experience as they took us in and got us to do the things we set out to do. Tuan Haji Shahlan, Dato Fuad, Yamin Wong, Umi Zuraida, Max, the late Azli Paad, and many individuals, clubs, organisations, and government agencies that were involved in Malaysia’s humanitarian delegations there.
My memories of Aceh are not of sadness and despair. But of hope and strength


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