At 7:58 in the morning of December 26, 2004 the third largest and longest earthquake ever recorded, unleashed a force 1,500 times greater than the atomic bomb that levelled Hiroshima. Fifteen minutes later waves 30 metres high hit the capital of West Aceh Meulaboh and 30 minutes later they hit Banda Aceh destroying over 60% of its buildings killing 130,000 people. The waves caused deaths in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Somalia. The world's people responded generously to this mega disaster -- putting governments to shame.
Let us remember those who lost their lives and how the world came together to help. It was inspiring to see how men and women all over the world came to help with their donations. For many years I have been able to go back to Aceh and sit on the beach and reflect on the impact and meaning of this disaster and life and death. The lesson that I learnt from the Chief Imam of the Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh was that we should be grateful for all the blessings that God has given us and use them properly when we have the opportunity. God is really testing us when He gives rather than when what we have is taken away.
I imagine the thousands of Acehnese who went to their local mosque to pray that Sunday morning including two of my nephews and grand-nephews, not realising that they would not see that day out. They and the other Acehnese who perished could not have imagined that they would be devoured by the 30 metres of water that hit Aceh. Another nephew died three days later due to lack of medical assistance. Maybe another hundred of my wife's relatives on the cost of west Aceh also lost their lives.
Coming out of retirement, I was privileged to be part of the rebuilding and recovery effort with Muslim Aid which started off my second career in the humanitarian field. it was a wonderful experience to work with one of Indonesia's great public servants Kuntoro, the head of the BRR and witness the marvellous achievements of the reconstruction of Aceh. The hard work and perseverance of families and communities — combined with the commitment of the provincial and national governments and the generosity of the international community — have helped Aceh recover to a degree simply unimaginable in the months after the disaster.
Muslim Aid started in Aceh (and Indonesia) with me, a vehicle and a driver after I had been volunteering for a while to support the response effort with some colleagues from Malaysia. The late Ibrahim Sa asked me to set up the Muslim Aid office and here was I, a university man now plunged into one of the greatest humanitarian responses in modern times. I was greatly supported by Hamid Azad who was in charge of overseas programmes of Muslim. Aid. We started with a programme of speedy provision of emergency shelters with Muslim Aid being one of the NGOs which mobilised local talent to build the most temporary shelters in the shortest possible time. At a meeting we were told that the people of Aceh did not have the skills to carry out the reconstruction but I found 600 local engineering graduates who we trained with the PWD and the ILO to become project staff in Aceh. We also were one of the first NGOs to build permanent shelters for the community near the shores of the capital Banda Aceh, building homes based on traditional design with stilts which actually doubled the size of the home using local materials and local contractors. We introduced toilets which were biodegradable and provided water for the garden and insulation in the roof to keep the homes cool. We were grateful to Jo deSilva of ARUP who provided pro bono design review of our traditional and brick housing designs to ensure that they met the standards required in an earthquake zone. Visiting the district of Pidie where an earthquake occurred in 2016 I was very happy to see that all Muslim Aid constructed houses had withstood the earthquake. Our success impressed the Asian Development Bank and we erected thousands of homes, many in difficult to reach and conflict-affected areas. The granddaughter of Winston Churchill who was one of the Directors of the Glastonbury Festival raised funds for houses. Muslim Aid became the first NGO in the world to have an an agreement signed by the President of the World Bank which was a multi-million dollar project for the drainage system of the central business district of Banda Aceh. In a satisfaction survey conducted among the Aceh community, Muslim Aid constructed houses were judged by the recipients to be among the top five. In the first anniversary of the tsunami Muslim Aid received the best publicity of all NGOs for its processes of accountability, transparency and consultation, even receiving praise from Transparency international. We were happy to also be able to take part in a multi-million dollar livelihood project which helped thousands of Acehnese restore their livelihoods. Muslim Aid constructed schools, kindergartens and hostels which had been destroyed by the tsunami. In recognition of Muslim Aid's role in the reconstruction effort in 2007 the Secretary General of the OIC Prof Dr. Ekmelnedidn Insanoglu declared open one of the kindergartens erected by Muslim Aid.
Muslim Air rapidly expanded to other parts of Indonesia and were among the first NGOs responding to the Yogyakarta earthquake in 2006, floods in Jakarta and earthquakes in Bengkulu and West Sumatra and the Muslim Aid team even sent its team to respond to the Solomon Island tsunami getting headlines “Showing the smiling face of Islam”. In Yogyakarta the UN praised Muslim Aid’s temporary shelter design and its programme for providing shelters for the disabled.
There is still work to be done in Aceh. Demand for action on jobs and the economy and protect the delicate environment under threat by the timber and oil palm mafia is still a challenge 14 years on. Purely from an economic perspective it has been proven that preserving Aceh's rain forest is more profitable than cutting it down for timber or oil palm -- recent floods and landslides have been a consequence of this dereliction of the Islamic principle of preserving the environment. Action is needed to deal with grass roots poverty and utilising Aceh's strategic position as the face of Indonesia on the Indian Ocean. Keeping Aceh's wealth in Aceh, and then directing it to where it's desperately needed still should be a priority