Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, January 14, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

The Dec. 26 tsunami disaster effectively flattened Banda Aceh and killed more than 105,000 people there. The tragedy was immense, and left people traumatized, trying to comprehend that they had lost their loved ones in an unpredictable, brutal way.

The world response to the disaster was impressively swift, although it remains to be seen whether this spirit will not recede as quickly as the tsunami.

Humanitarian assistance has poured in to the devastated city; and as flocks of national and international volunteers have gathered there in streams, the central government quickly implemented the visa-on-arrival in order to ease the relief operation. Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, which is still under a state of civil emergency, was suddenly open to almost everybody.

Much as the wrath of nature killed people irrespective of their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion, people around the world acted in like fashion, mourning the death of their fellow men and uniting in an awesome spirit of humanity. Social organizations around the world quickly organized fund-raisers, and it was astonishing to realize that those who acted first to lend hand to the most populated Muslim country in the world were from non-Muslim countries.

Within the country, heartening actions were also taken, such as Jusuf Wanandi's appeal in this paper not long ago that this was the moment of truth for Chinese-Indonesians to display their sense of solidarity by participating in relief efforts.

As such, the tragedy has prompted people across the world to gather in Aceh in a great spirit of empathy and compassion. The power of nature, at least for the moment, has sidelined man's arrogance, complacency and prejudice, instead uniting them in an unprecedented show of humanity.

Will this spirit prevail in the aftermath of the tragedy, particularly as reconstructing Aceh is a mammoth task that would take years to complete? Likewise, will we, as a people of this highly diverse country prone to communal and religious conflicts, be able to restrain ourselves from our historical biases, particularly toward foreign volunteers or to our countrymen of different religious and ethnic backgrounds?
Furthermore, in an era when terrorism has been so prominent, will the international community be able to put aside the prevailing prejudice that has identified terror with Islam?

Sadly, signs of racial and religious prejudice are beginning to emerge and may threaten reconstruction efforts.
As some volunteers admitted in this paper recently: "false stories about looting, burning and rape targeting the ethnic Chinese in Aceh ... and other rumors have been circulating via email and SMS. Some people responded ... by calling for a stop to all humanitarian aid from and to specific ethnic and religious groups".

Another sign was the circulation of leaflets that called on the Acehnese not to allow adoptions by "kafir (infidels), Christians or missionaries". Later, it was found that the flyers were spread allegedly to spark hatred among the people.

Meanwhile, a sense of "nationalism" apparently spread by ultra-nationalists began to emerge with suspicions that the foreign troops assigned to the city were more political than humanitarian -- but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono brushed aside the issue.

Likewise, at the international level, prejudice began to rise as various media reported that "militant groups" had joined relief efforts with a possible agenda to target foreigners from Christian countries. The concern may be understandable, but this merely proves that the flame of religious tension is still burning, regardless the severity of human tragedy -- which is supposed to transcend race, faith and nationality.

It should be remembered that because the catastrophe was centered in our country, responsibility for the appropriate realization of aid efforts rests squarely on our shoulders.
In this case, it is the obvious duty of religious and local leaders to continue to foster an understanding within communities that this human tragedy belongs not only to "us", but also to "them", and that there is no reason whatsoever to stir misunderstanding. This message could be relayed through mosques, conscientious media coverage and the government.

In the meantime, foreign volunteers are also expected to conduct their relief mission with high respect toward local politics, cultures and religions. Perhaps cultural liaison officers should accompany volunteer teams to consult on local sensitivities. For example, religious conversion issues are highly sensitive and need to be handled with caution.

More importantly, all parties, particularly those who apparently tried to boost their political standing both overtly and covertly, should strongly restrain themselves. Spreading rabble-rousing rumors is not only cowardly, but is also dangerous to national cohesion. The tragedy is so vast and the agony and grief of the Acehnese so inconceivable, it is repugnant and unethical if certain parties try to gain political benefits at the expense of the suffering Acehnese.

The catastrophe is thus a test of our commitment to nurturing our sense of humanity and very possibly, this could serve as a historical turning point for this multi-ethnic country to embrace a more harmonious coexistence after prolonged religious and communal conflicts.

As we have all observed, the worldwide response in aid of our Acehnese brothers and sisters has been heartwarming and genuine. In return, we should show our sincerity, courage and a conscious attitude toward maintaining this spirit following the tragedy -- and bury our misunderstandings, prejudices and selfishness.

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