Information und Analyse

More than 27,000 dead and the death toll still rising – Tsunami in Indonesia

28 December 2004

by Alex Flor


Stranded ships in Banda Aceh

Photo: Jörg Meier

The earth quake that struck on Sunday was the biggest of its kind during the last 40 years. Its epicentre was located 150 km off the South-western coastline of the Indonesian province of Aceh. The tidal wave which was triggered by the quake took the life of tens of thousands in the coastal regions of twelve Asian and African states.

The death toll is still rising by the hour. On Sunday, the day of the catastrophe, the number of dead was said to be 11,000, on Monday this figure had already more than doubled. According to latest information, the casualty figure has risen to 55,000 with thousands more feared dead. For Indonesia, latest figures state that the death toll on the island of Sumatra has risen to 27,000, and BBC reports that an estimated one million have been made homeless.

TV pictures have covered the destruction in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. Tourists have become the eyes of the world. But in Aceh there are no tourists. And nobody who takes pictures. This region which is probably the one worst hit by the catastrophe escapes the world’s attention. For the past two years, the province has been under martial law respectively civil emergency. Foreigners have almost entirely been denied access. Especially journalists and aid workers were not at all welcome. A military operation to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) continues to the present day. More than 30,000 troops are deployed in the province. Unfortunately, they are ill equipped for a relief operation – although apparently ordered to take on this task now.

In view of the catastrophe, both the GAM leadership in exile in Stockholm and the Commander-in-Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces, General Endriartono Sutarto, have announced a temporary ceasefire. But the fighting seems to continue nevertheless. The first armed clashes after the tidal wave hit were reported from Bireuen. Four GAM members were shot dead, among them the local Deputy Commander of the Free Aceh Movement. In Bireuen, the tidal wave had destroyed more than 3,000 houses, the death toll in the city stands currently at a 191.

The worst effected areas in Aceh are the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the coastal city of Meulaboh. Reports give figures of 9,000 dead in Banda Aceh and 10,000 dead in Meulaboh. The airport in Banda Aceh is destroyed, roads rendered impassable through mudslides. The telecommunication system has collapsed entirely, including mobile phone connections. According to our latest information, people in Aceh with mobile phones connected to providers outside Aceh may possibly be reached and occasionally SMS text messages get through. Else, only satellite-phones work. Thus, it is impossible to get an impression of the real scope of the catastrophe in the province. There are also no news reports from the region. The local paper Serambi can no longer be produced, in its premises the mud is slowly drying, the printery on the ground floor is completely destroyed. A number of staff members are still missing. Also the internet version of the paper no longer displays any information.

So far, no news have come out of the lowlands at the South-western coastlines of Aceh. Located to the south of the town Meulaboh where a quarter of the population has reportedly died, the worst has to be expected. However, according to latest information, the island of Simeulue, only 40 km away from the epicentre, seems to have escaped the worst damage. The tidal wave here is said to have reached only a height of one meter. The island Nias located further south and belonging to the province of North Sumatra, on the other hand, is one of the worst effected regions outside of Aceh.

It is feared that an aftershock will take place which would only exacerbate the already catastrophic situation.


After continuous calls for Aceh to be opened for foreign aid agencies and journalists, Vice President Jusuf Kalla announced on Monday night that they were now allowed access to the province. But procedural regulations still hinder speedy access for desperately needed immediate relief aid. According to The Jakarta, aid workers not based in the country need to submit an application which might take two weeks. The same goes for journalists with no base in Indonesia. Foreign journalists based in Jakarta need to secure a pass from local military authorities and can then go directly to Aceh. Liaison officer for foreign journalists is the deputy to coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Joko Sumaryono.

Citizens in Jakarta and other cities have been donating money, food, clothes and medicine etc. For the latter, local NGOs have established several collection points (Posko). At the same time NGOs try their best to get information about the scope of the disaster, about the type and scope of the aid needed and about possible transportation lines.

Governments and international aid agencies have reacted promptly to the catastrophe that hit the countries bordering on the Indian Ocean and have already started comprehensive aid operations. To date, Japan has pledged 30 million US Dollar, the European Union 40.5 million, the United States 15 million, Australia 7.8 million, China 2.6 million and Singapore 1.2 million US Dollar. Aid agencies such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UNICEF, Medicines sans Frontieres, Oxfam and others call for donations.

With the fear of aftershocks and the imminent danger of diseases spreading rapidly, it is essential that comprehensive aid can immediately be supplied to the disaster hit areas in Aceh.

Watch Indonesia! supports the demands of partner organisations in Indonesia such as, among others, their call for the immediate opening-up of Aceh, for transparent and corruption-free distribution of aid and accessible aid distribution centres.

Watch Indonesia! welcomes the initial move by the Government of Indonesia to open Aceh to foreign aid agencies and media.

Watch Indonesia! calls on the Government of Indonesia to speed up the registration process so that agencies and media can reach Aceh and do their work as quickly as possible.

Watch Indonesia! furthermore calls on both the Indonesian Armed Forces and the Free Aceh Movement to abide by their ceasefire announcements and to create circumstances so that relief operations can be carried out. <>

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