Despair, devastation for Indonesia’s Achenese

Jan. 4: Banda Aceh is filled with incongruous scenes, like this boat in a parking lot miles from the ocean.
Jan. 4: Banda Aceh is filled with incongruous scenes, like this boat in a parking lot miles from the ocean.Marisa Buchanan/NBC
/ Source: NBC News

It’s the people staring that struck me at first. As we got off the plane there were hundreds of displaced people at the airport staring, hoping to find a way out of this unimaginable broken town. People here are hungry, homeless and beaten down. The tsunami ripped apart a place already troubled by civil war.

The sheer number of deaths is evident on every corner downtown — shops, homes and buildings collapsed, cars bent in odd shapes, people with faces covered in scarves and masks searching endlessly through the rubble.

It was a feat to outrun the water that day, it's plain to see — the waves consumed this beachfront city whole.

The smell hit me right away as I got out of the car to look around the main mosque in town. Although they are still collecting bodies on the opposite side of the street, they are planting trees at the mosque — I can only surmise that they are attempting to provide some sort of beauty again to their most holy site. But beauty is not a word to be uttered here now. It's littered to the extremes, everything is in pieces with mud and standing water gluing it all together.

We found devastation in dramatic and vivid colors — the green paint on boats, the bright pink shirt of a small refugee girl or the deep black of fields covered in mud. We discovered large fishing boats in the middle of streets that didn’t run to the beach. Boats slammed against bridges and houses. Any bit of color seemed to be brighter than ever as it contrasted so greatly with the endless mounds of debris and sludge.

We walked through a refugee camp where women rocked their babies and small children kicked soccer balls. But mostly in this place, people just sat silent and still.

One woman came up to me and said, "Please come back"; others asked how long we could stay. It seems they know this attention is fleeting but that they cannot survive this disaster without what aid it could bring them.

Water is the currency of choice — in this humid and damp area it is the only refreshment that can quench and clean — and now it comes more welcome unwrapped from containers than from the ocean.

It doesn’t seem like there is enough of any aid, yet the Achenese are not manic and desperate. They just seem shaken and bruised. There is an emotional wound here beyond the awesome physical scars — how they can face this now on Day 9 is more incomprehensible with each hour that goes by. Death has cast a hard shadow on the Achenese this year.