Ten years ago, a disaster of epic proportions devastated several countries in Asia. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 230,000 people in a single day, while over 45,000 people still remain missing.
For many, it was the first time they’d heard the word tsunami.
When I heard the news, I was at home in the United Kingdom with my family. I was working as director of the BBC World Service and we became a lifeline to many communities as we broadcasted news of the tsunami’s impact in multiple Asian languages.
Now, a decade later, the worst-affected countries — Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India — have rebuilt almost all that was destroyed. In most places, only a few remnants of the disaster remain, yet each are poignant. In the hardest-hit area of Aceh, Indonesia, a fisherman’s boat still sits on top of a house; a giant freighter which traveled 5 km inland and destroyed numerous communities, sits close to the center of Banda Aceh — a reminder of the sheer destructive force and scale of the tsunami. Clamber atop the freighter and you can see the entire city, in a chilling reminder of just how far this monstrous wave traveled inland.
If you speak to the locals, their story is just as relevant today as it was back then. The pain remains, as many victims fight back tears as they recall their stories. Houses were devastated, livelihoods were lost and family members were killed.
Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004, still remains etched in their minds as it does in the minds of those thousands of miles away like myself who still remember the Boxing Day tsunami in Aceh.
Twelve-year-old Yaumul lost his father to the wave and still doesn’t know where he is buried. “l miss him every day,” he says. Surya, 19, was just 9 when he was separated from his family and caught in the wave for hours. He lost over half his family. It took him three months before he was able to find his sister. Now, he lives with his sister and her family and is back at secondary school, hoping to complete his education. Then there’s Mariana, a 28-year-old woman whose community was devastated by the tsunami. Supported by Plan International, she trained to become a preschool teacher and now runs her own learning center in her village.
These stories — both heartbreaking and hopeful — show how communities then reduced to rubble can begin to rebuild their lives when the world pulls together.
My organization was at the forefront of the response to the tsunami and these anniversaries provide us with an opportunity to honor the victims of this tragedy and revisit and remember them, 10 years on. In the immediate aftermath, Plan tailored its relief efforts to each country’s unique needs and coordinated with government and nongovernment organizations. We put children at the center of relief and development programs, providing back-to-school kits and books, many of which now sit in the community libraries for all to use. We also worked to make sure that children’s needs, their protection and their long-term development were central to our programs, ensuring that psychosocial care was provided to both children and adults.
This disaster was also a testimony to the global development community. The tsunami marked an extraordinary outpouring of international aid. Individual donors, governments and foundations demonstrated a level of generosity and commitment never before seen.
When events like this capture people’s hearts, it reminds us that the world really is just a village, and that we look after each other. Politics matter less. International rivalries become irrelevant. Nations act like a community and rivals act like neighbors. People open their hearts, across the world to help, to give something, to do something, to help respond to the scale of human suffering.
That generosity allowed NGOs like Plan and other humanitarian aid groups to mobilize relief on a level rarely seen before. Multicountry responses were assembled, in some cases within hours, for the emergency distribution of food, shelter and medicine. This later transitioned into a long-term response dealing with everything from the psychological trauma suffered by hundreds of thousands of children to rebuilding schools and health centers, and launching livelihood projects to help communities regain their incomes and independence.
This 10th anniversary provides us an opportunity to remember the colossal number of people who lost their lives, and commemorate the survivors and the resilience and strength that underlies their recovery. At the same time, it also a reminder to recognize the generosity and the ability of the international community to pull together in a disaster or emergency.
And as we look across the world, at the number of humanitarian interventions which need consistent support — Syria, northern Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and of course West Africa and the Ebola crisis — we need to take the spirit of generosity, and apply it just as well as we did after the tsunami — for the sake of the innocent children and communities whose lives are at risk and who deserve the very best we can do for and with them.
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