On 26 December 2004, the ground shook and the ocean rose, engulfing the entire western coast of Aceh, Indonesia. It’s estimated that 170,000 people died, 550,000 were displaced and communities were changed forever.
And MAF was one of the first responders.
We have been working in Indonesia since the 1950s, and our programme in Kalimantan began in 1969. When the boxing day crisis hit, MAF mobilised planes from Bangladesh, Australia and other parts of Indonesia to assist with the relief marathon. Days after the tragedy, MAF was conducting survey flights and delivering aid, using roads as airstrips to reach desperately isolated survivors.
'It was just destruction. I’ve never seen anything like it!'
MAF Special Project Director David Wunsch
Roads were destroyed or covered with debris. Ground travel was nearly impossible. Yet MAF planes delivered food, water, medicine and other necessities to places that were completely out of reach.
Tim Chase arrived in Aceh 10 days after the tsunami hit. ‘We could load 150 boxes or so into a Cessna 206. People would crowd around the plane as it landed, desperately seeking help.’
As other relief organisations began to arrive, MAF established a communications centre in Meulaboh near a UN base camp. Our services became known as the ‘internet café’.
‘There was a huge need for communications, most of the infrastructure was destroyed,’ says Mark Blomberg, who was working at MAF’s Meulaboh centre. ‘We had a tent with tables, computers and a wireless network, available for the UN or anyone who wanted to use it.
‘People came to the café early morning to shoot off a few emails or make calls, then go out to spend the day in the field. After dinner they would return to write up reports and make phone calls with MAF phones. At that point, our internet café was the only communication link.’
Joy in the tragedy
Amidst the tragedy, Mark met his wife Heidi in Meulaboh – another reason to celebrate MAF’s presence in Haiti. She was working for Food for the Hungry, one of the many relief organisations MAF partnered with.
‘We always flew with MAF from Medan to Meulaboh,’ reflects Heidi. ‘We did surveys up the coast with the MAF float plane, and MAF helped us eventually set up internet in our office.’
The rebuilding of Aceh continued for years. Hundreds of development groups were involved in diverse ways – from building fish farms to planting rice; digging wells to clearing debris. And MAF provided transport, communication and logistics to help make it happen.
Disaster response and long-term restoration
‘We have always helped in crises, but after the tsunami, it was obvious that MAF has an important role to play in logistics and transport; enabling other relief providers,’ says Dave.
MAF now has a full-time disaster response department that’s on standby to help in the wake of natural disasters. This team has played critical roles following Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua, the 2010 Haitian earthquake and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
But what began as disaster response turned into a long-term commitment for MAF in Aceh. 10 years on, MAF one of the only aid groups still working to rebuild the community, providing medical evacuations, vocational training and a reliable air-service.
To the casual observer, Aceh may seem to have recovered. But such loss is not quickly forgotten.
‘Things will never be the same,’ Tim says. ‘Everything looks fine, but it will be a generation or two before things truly get back to normal.’