At the southern end of the Indonesian province of Aceh, there is a city called Medan. There, the Chinese can seek solace and comfort. Medan is the largest city in Sumatra. After the tsunami disaster, the Chinese society has become a support area for the disaster zone, as well as a safe haven for all the Chinese refugees who have fled to Medan.
About six kilometers away from the city center of Medan, there is a village known as Metal with a population of about 2,700 persons. In 1965, there was a bloody coup in Indonesia. Of the 80,000 Chinese people in Aceh province, several thousands were slaughtered and three-quarters of them were forced to leave their homes and lose their possessions. The surviving Aceh Chinese fled to Medan, and were received kindly by the local Chinese people who gave them a piece of land as a refugee camp. This would become the village of Metal today.
At presently, there are still 2,700 Chinese residents in Metal. In 1998, there was more anti-Chinese riots across Indonesia, but the people of Metal village decided to take up arms to defend their village against the bad elements that wanted to raid and loot their homes, even as the Chinese elsewhere in Indonesia suffered silently.
Our reporter went into the village of Metal recently, and saw several hundred volunteers at the town hall offering help to the refugees -- medical treatment, cooking, registration, donating money and ferrying new refugees in from the Medan airport. Since the tsunami struck, more than 6,000 Aceh refugees have passed through the village of Metal, most of them being Chinese.
The temporary headquarters erected on the basketball court is stacked with food, water and clothing donated by people. The villagers have converted the unoccupied houses into temporary shelters so that the refugees won't have to stay out in the open. With the help of the refugee center, many refugees have found their relatives and are temporarily staying with them. For now, there are still more than 200 refugees with nowhere to go.
44-year-old Li was born in Banda Aceh and had lived there happily with her 47-year-old husband and two daughters. On the day of the tsunami, she had gone out on a business errand and she was swept away by water that came as high as her neck. She survived, but her home was destroyed and her husband and two daughters are missing. She was obviously distressed by the destruction of everything that she lived for.
A kind friend in Banda Aceh took Li in and then paid for an airplane ticket that was higher than market price to get her to Medan, so that she did not have to look at the dead bodies all over Banda Aceh. Li showed the photos of her family to our reporter and said, "I have not seen their bodies. There are thousands and thousands of bodies all over the city. How am I going to find them? I lost all my documents in the tsunami. Without documents, I cannot get work."
Li is currently living in the shelter in the village of Medan. This is not a solution to her long-term situation. Although Aceh has brought her so much sorrow, she still wants to go back there because of the many fond memories.
There are about 6 million Chinese in Indonesia, or about 3.8% of the total population. During the rule of former president Suharto, the Chinese were treated as second-class citizens who were pawns in the political struggle.
The local guide to the reporter had lived in Aceh before having to flee to Medan during the 1965 anti-Chinese riots. This time, many Chinese had to bribe their ways to get out of Banda Aceh. For example, the national airline Garuda increased its ticket prices out of Banda Aceh by 100%. Other Chinese have complained that they could not receive essential supplies such as food and water unless they paid for it. Many Chinese also found out that although their shops were not affected by the tsunami, they received warnings to leave and then their shops were looted.
The local guide said that the official response was slow at first, and many hungry survivors had to raid the stores to get food. It just so happened that many of these stores were owned by Chinese people. Since then, the situation has calmed down when the authorities reasserted themselves.
After the disaster happened, most of the Chinese people fled Aceh. There are only about several hundred Chinese left in Banda Aceh. There is a rumor that some Chinese were prevented from leaving by the authorities, or that only the children and elderly were allowed to leave while the able-bodied adults were forced to stay to help. The Chinese community is concerned that since most of the Chinese left without helping, there may be some adverse reaction afterwards from the Indonesians.
In Aceh province, two major disaster areas are Banda Aceh with a population of 350,000 and Meulaboh with a population of 50,000. About half of the buildings in the former are destroyed and 80% of the latter has been leveled. There are about 400 Chinese-owned stores in Banda Aceh, and many of them were robbed during the three days of anarchy after the disaster.
According to a Mister Lee who fled to Medan, his three-story building was not destroyed, but all his merchandise was flooded. Everyone was panicky, and epidemics were imminent due to the large number of unburied bodies. That was why many Chinese fled from the city. A Mister Zhang said that Chinese stores were looted in individual instances, and not in systematic campaigns directed specifically against the Chinese.
In Meulaboh, there were about 150 Chinese-owned stores, and they have all been destroyed. The military issued a warning about 20 minutes before the sea water came so that many people were able to find safe areas, but a small number of Chinese still perished.
Lhokseumawe is located on the northeastern coast of Aceh province and has a population of 150,000, of which about 3,000 are Chinese. None of the 160 dead were Chinese. After the tsunami, there were instances of looting but they were not directed against the Chinese alone. Lhokseumawe was the fastest city to restore public order since it has a large military garrison.
Many of the ex-Aceh Chinese people in Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesian have mixed feelings. The disaster area was familiar to them. They do not harbor any bitterness about being mistreated in the past, because they understood that it was an extreme action during a political movement. A successful businessman Mr. Xu does not believe that the Chinese who were Indonesian citizens were not in danger, but they left because they did not want to get hurt in the chaos.
As for the looting of the Aceh Chinese, the rapes of the women and the differential treatment in receiving emergency relief materials, an Aceh human rights activist said that those were inaccurate information disseminated via mobile phone SMS's.
From ESWN's blogger site:
The following information appeared in two articles in the January 16, 2005 issue of Yazhou Zhoukan. ESWN has translated only the sections that pertain to the Chinese in Aceh. They are more detailed and credible than what was originally published in the Apple Daily. In the three days of anarchy after the tsunami hit, the hungry survivors would have gone to any food store, Chinese-owned or otherwise.