After settling comfortably in Peukan Bada, Teresa and I hopped on our newly rented motorbike and together we drove into Banda Aceh, about twenty five minutes away. The city is fairly small and easy to get around; it wasn’t too difficult to find anything we were looking for. Before heading out, though, we had an occupant to kick off.
The day we drove in there happened to be some sort of parade going on with military personnel marching through a large open park between two streets, Jalan Teuku Syeh Mudawali and Jalan Tgk. Abdullah Ujung Rimba. At one end of the grounds were several food and drink stalls that Teresa and I decided to check out. We’d already eaten so we just enjoyed some fresh apple shakes while chilling on a wooden bench watching some of the festivities.
Across the street from the park on a main road called Jalan Sultan Iskandar Muda is the Aceh Tsunami Museum. We were able to find a parking spot right on the street outside from which we walked to the front entrance of the museum.
I couldn’t believe how packed the museum was. At the time we were there, in October of 2013, it had been nearly ten years since the brutal tsunami emerged off the coast of Sumatra after a massive earthquake beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. Clearly, the consequences of the tsunami still resonate with the Acehnese people, most of whom were there for the devastation and cleanup. Hundreds of locals were present to experience the museum, many of them with their children who either wouldn’t have remembered the disaster or were not even born yet. There was something very touching about the tradition of passing on the knowledge of the disaster to the youth. Several locals asked Teresa and I to take pictures with them outside of the museum.
To better contextualize the political situation in Aceh Province prior to the tsunami, it must be understood that this particular region of Indonesia is stricter in its interpretation of the Quran compared to the rest of the country. The spread of Islam throughout Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia may have begun in Aceh Province. As recently as the early 21st century, militant factions often fought with government officials, kidnappings were more common, and travellers often avoided the area due to the violence and strife.
The devastation caused by the tsunami forced these opposing groups to work with one another to rebuild Banda Aceh and the surrounding countryside. As a result, the fighting died down and a peace agreement was reached, partly coordinated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. The region became more open to tourism.
From what I’ve read in the news recently, there’s been a bit of a clampdown in terms of the strictness of Sharia Law. When we were there, Sharia Law applied to Muslims whether they were residents or not. Travellers like Teresa and myself who are clearly not Muslim would generally be left alone in regards to these strict religious laws that would dictate the behaviours, clothing choices, etc. of Islamic followers. The laws restrict practices like drinking alcohol, homosexuality, sexual harassment, or anything else deemed to be in violation of the Quran’s teachings. The consequences of violating these laws include public humiliation, lashings in the street, imprisonment, and death depending on the severity of the violation. Rights groups the world over have condemned the imposition of Sharia Law as abusive and inhumane.
Now, apparently Sharia Law is being applied once again to everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I’ve read conflicting reports but from what I understand, the law wasn’t often applied as strictly by government forces compared to vigilante groups and the militant groups I mentioned earlier. These factions would go out and apply the laws on their own, with no regulation, often against women who seem to face greater levels of judgment under this system. Now, however, Sharia Law is the official law in Aceh Province, a stark contrast to the rest of moderate Islamic Indonesia. Non-Muslims could be tried under Sharia Law if arrested in Aceh Province but also technically have the option to be tried under the standard Indonesian criminal code. Either way, I would hope that the peace agreement holds and that travellers are allowed to benefit from the kinds of religious freedoms we enjoy in many other places in the world. Aceh Province is a beautiful region and the people are wonderful. It would be a shame for there to be reason to avoid visiting. On a side note, I do not condone Sharia Law whatsoever, whether applied to Muslims or anyone else. It’s a violation of our universal human rights and a more modern legal system ought to be applied to everyone, local and traveller alike. But the interesting thing is that the people who are employed to enforce the laws are often everyday people who need to feed their family. It’s difficult to hold the same sentiment towards the individual as I would direct to the few who really pull the strings. I even met a police officer, armed with an AK-47 that looked like it’d been used for decades, who was more than happy to snap a photo with me. While excusing my 2013 self, I promise I’ll never try to make that face again!
Returning to the Aceh Tsunami Museum, there did seem to be a sense of comradery and support amongst the locals who have all suffered together, as well as a welcoming sentiment directed towards visitors like Teresa and myself. Walking through the museum, we learned a lot about Banda Aceh, Aceh province, the tsunami and how it was handled. We watched a short documentary, presented in Indonesian with English subtitles. Inside the museum, students would be coming right up to us, asking to take pictures with Teresa and I. For the youth, everything here was approached with energy and enthusiasm.
It was difficult to watch and witness some of what we saw, but it was obviously nothing compared to what the locals have been through and continue to go through. There is a blanket of solemnity over the city of Banda Aceh and it is impossible not to face it when you come to visit. But there were also a lot of smiles on the faces of the locals, each one different from the last. The older generations have a look of hardened resolve; they’ve seen hardship that many of us will never see in the entirety of our lives, including the untimely and violent deaths of entire families. Despite all of that, they’ve still been able to emit a positive resolve that has shaped the way the new generation faces their world.
The youth have a more naïve brightness about them. They know what happened here in Aceh Province, but it’s not the same as experiencing it. It’s just like learning about any disaster or atrocity that occurred. You can feel the devastation upon learning of its existence and the consequences. But unless you’ve lived it, you won’t have that altered outlook on life that tells a person that you’ve seen some things that you can’t un-see. It’s from here that Banda Aceh’s unbridled solemnity derives, and the people have chosen to turn it into something positive. For that, I’ll always feel welcome.