IT BEGAN just before 1am. The earthquake erupted just off the coast of Sumatra – unleashing a force 1500 times greater than the Hiroshima atomic bomb and tearing open an 800-mile wound in the sea bed.
On and on the quake shuddered and slammed and shifted, the shocking movement triggering a series of mountainous waves towards the low lying coastline of Indonesia.
There was no warning system, nothing to alert those asleep to what was heading their way. Within hours hundreds of thousands of people, who woke that Boxing Day morning with sore heads and full bellies after Christmas celebrations, were dead. Swept up in the torrential, terrifying water. Waves of 100ft carried away men, women, children, and infants in a cruel, crushing, suffocating embrace.
From India and Bangladesh to South Africa and countries in between people and animals were killed, buildings destroyed, land ripped apart.
Banda Aceh on the north tip of Indonesia was hit first – just 30 minutes after the quake began – by 30ft-high waves which ultimately killed 130,000 people.
The Nicobar and Andaman islands were next, then an hour after it started the wave arrived in Burma, then Malaysia. Half an hour on and the west coast of Thailand and Phuket were hit – tourists drowned in their hotel rooms.
Sri Lanka and southern India were next, then Chennai – women and children are drowned as they wait on the beaches for their fishermen husbands and fathers to return, while the men out at sea float over the wave, returning home to find their families gone.
Three-and-a-half hours after it hit Indonesia, the wave washed across the Maldives... seven hours on it hit the east coast of Africa, Somalia was the worst affected. Eight people die off the coast of South Africa.
The world was frozen in shock as the death toll began to mount... and then the action began.
“I remember getting the call on Boxing Day. I was in the National Gallery on the Mound and the security guards giving me cross looks as I was shouting into my phone. I couldn’t believe what I was being told,” recalls Mark Chadwick, senior programme officer with Edinburgh-based relief organisation Mercy Corps.
“It was just a year on from the Boxing Day earthquake which hit Iran and killed 26,000 people and to hear that another quake had struck was hard to accept at first.
“The call I got was from our emergency operations team and although Indonesia wasn’t my part of the world normally, I was in Edinburgh and able to get stuck in to what we needed to do.” What was needed was immediate disaster relief – and that needed money and co-ordination. “We knew people wanted to do something to help, collections were started almost immediately,” recalls Councillor Lesley Hinds, the then Lord Provost. “Like most people I was at home and heard the news on the radio, but it took a while for it to become apparent just how awful the situation was.
“It was like an automatic response to help as soon as people realised the extent of the devastation, the lives lost... we felt as a council we should help co-ordinate things along with Mercy Corps so that money would go somewhere it would do the most good and the people of Edinburgh would be sure that it was being spent properly.”
Mark adds: “We had people on the ground in Indonesia already, working on our projects there, so we were getting daily calls of what was going on, how bad things were, what was needed.
“The worst affected area was Banda Aceh so we had staff there very quickly. Of course disaster relief is what we do, but this was on a different scale – the numbers of people who were killed in a very short space of time, compared to other disasters... it was hard to comprehend.
“Assessments were made but it was obvious what was needed – in the first instance the distribution of essential basics, shelter, food, blankets. That was in the acute moment, though as time went on our help changed to supporting those grieving, left with nothing, to start again.”
Within days the Capital Appeal was launched – with the support of the Evening News – and over six months more than £600,000 was raised by the people of Edinburgh and the Lothians to support the people of Banda Aceh.
“It was amazing,” says Mark. “Our profile as an organisation had never been high and suddenly people knew about us and our work and how we were trying to help and wanting to give something. I’ve never known a response like it. I think ultimately more than £1 million was raised in Edinburgh, with £700,000 of that coming from individuals. There were so many fundraising events... I think the scale of what happened in Indonesia just really affected people. The response was very special.”
Lesley Hinds – who went out to Banda Aceh to see the work Mercy Corps was doing – agrees that the public response was something she’d never experienced before. “There have been disasters, floods, hurricanes and people always do want to help, but this was off the scale, perhaps because of the time of year,” she says.
“We decided to help Banda Aceh in particular because it was so badly hit and we heard so many distressing stories from Mercy Corps people. I was watching a programme about the ten-year anniversary the other evening and I couldn’t believe a decade had passed. Seeing the difference of how things are now was amazing.
“When I went out there the rebuilding was all still just beginning. And yet a community centre and mosque had been built and there was a plaque saying “thanks to Edinburgh”. I felt so humbled by that – all the fundraising people had done and here was the outcome.”
She adds: “Raising that money in such a short space of time was a terrific achievement in Edinburgh and helped get the local population of Aceh back to work and earning, back to school and learning as well as providing equipment and repairs for sports, religious and cultural institutions and activities. But the resilience of the local population was astounding.”
Initially Mercy Corps ran a “cash for work” programme repairing fishing boats, cleaning and repairing dozens of schools, helping thousands of people return to their towns and villages, helping fruit and vegetable farmers and those who sell their produce restore their businesses, and providing cleaning and hygiene kits.
The charity’s programme also saw workers help with the restoration of community worship centres and mosques – all programmes aimed at putting locals in charge of the recovery process, paying them to do essential work they identified.
There were other areas of Indonesia where Mercy Corps and the Capital Appeal helped. Meulaboh, on the west coast of the Aceh province was badly hit by the tsunami and the organisation was one of the first to arrive in the remote village area to provide emergency relief and longer term recovery programmes.
Then there was Layeun, which with £50,000 of the money raised in Edinburgh and the Lothians, was rebuilt. Almost half the village’s population was killed or displaced, but with Mercy Corp and the cash, within four years, homes were rebuilt and a community centre created. Training was also provided so locals could carry out their own repairs in future, with physical skills as well as being able to develop project proposals and financial reports.
Similarly the village of Nusa was reborn after the tsunami tore through the place. The Capital Appeal helped to develop a long-term plan after the initial rebuilding was complete. It included agricultural programmes to support fisheries, livestock, forestry and crop production as well as micro- finance to help survivors connect with services to start or improve their own businesses.
A bakery has proved to be the most successful of these new businesses – started with money from the Capital Appeal.
Meanwhile, the women of Mirik Lamereudup village have been so successful they won awards for their co-operative organic agriculture business – but only because they got vegetable seeds, farming tools and training from Mercy Corps.
So ten years on, what now for Mercy Corps in Indonesia? Mark says: “We have been involved in Indonesia for decades and now much of the work we do today is what we were there for originally, helping the poorest in what is a very unequal society. Things are much better, but there is much still to do. While the government’s International Development department is now planning to end its aid programme for Indonesia in Match, we will be carrying on our work.”
Capital family’s tragedy
WHEN the tsunami hit the coast of Thailand, 6200 miles away in Edinburgh the shock was also being felt.
Simon Stephenson, visiting his mum Mary for Christmas, was woken by a phone ringing. He’d spoken to his architect brother Dominic the day before, hearing about the delights of Koh Phi Phi island, where he was holidaying with his girlfriend Eileen Lee, a 24-year-old events organiser. They’d flown out just days after getting the keys to their first flat in the Capital.
This time though on the other end of the line was Dominic’s flatmate calling to ask if the Stephensons had heard from him.
It was only then that Simon, a doctor turned screenwriter, switched on the TV to discover what had happened. In that moment his life changed forever.
Years later he wrote Let Not The Waves of the Sea, a memoir to his brother as well as the story of how he went to Thailand to see the aftermath of the disaster for himself and helped to build a memorial garden.
He and his family are commemorating the tenth anniversary of 27-year-old Dominic’s death privately, but in his book he writes of how his uncle flew to Thailand to try and find his nephew’s body – though it would take three months before Dominic was officially identified.
It was a further five months before Eileen’s body was identified and brought home.
He writes how a week after Dominic is brought back to Edinburgh, he touches the coffin on what would have been his 28th birthday. “The feeling was like nothing I had ever known… I now realised that I was forever consigned to wander alone and without a heart in a dark and freezing world.”
Tale of the tsunami
• Earthquake hit at 00:58:53 on December 26, 2004
• It is the fourth largest earthquake recorded
• Tsunami waves reached 100ft in height
• The energy released by the 9.2 magnitude quake was equivalent to 26 megatons of TNT exploding
• 230,000 people perished in 15 countries. 170,000 deaths were in Indonesia.
• A massive £622,679 was raised to help by Evening News readers. It helped pay for a five-year programme of work to help the Aceh people
• Around 813,000 people were helped directly, a further 1,156,000 benefited indirectly
• Small loans and credit to start and expand businesses were given to 12,655 people and more than 600 infrastructure projects have been completed