It was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami on 26 December 2004 devastated large areas of the Indian Ocean coast. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and many of the survivors were injured and homeless. Our colleagues Karsten Tietz and Michael Banzhaf worked in Thailand and Indonesia following the tsunami and share their memories of that time for our series “In the line of duty”.
Karsten Tietz heard the terrible news on a Bank Holiday, Boxing Day 2004. Yet at that point he had no idea just how many people’s lives were in danger in the wake of the earthquake. As Head of the Legal and Consular Affairs Section at the German Embassy in Bangkok, he set off for Phuket, in the south of the country, with a small team of four colleagues.
“Sheer masses” of people in need
The team was unaware that in the south 20,000 homeless Germans were waiting, “with nowhere to stay, no documents or tickets, no money and nothing other than the clothes they were wearing”. In addition there were several hundred seriously injured Germans lying in various hospitals across the region.
The number of the dead was also unclear. “We were overwhelmed by the sheer masses of people in need and of course we had no plan of action. How do you deal with a crisis of that scale?”
Setting priorities – a difficult undertaking in the chaos following the disaster. How are you supposed to explain to distraught tourists who have just found their relatives’ dead bodies that others need help first?
Our first priority was to tend to the seriously injured, not to identify the dead or organise the repatriation of bodies. As hard as it sounds, the dead are beyond help, and the living urgently need it.
Hundreds of seriously injured people are flown out
Soon doctors and teams of helpers from Germany arrived. They drove around the various hospitals and returned with bad news. Many German patients with serious wounds would have barely a hope of survival unless they could be evacuated.
What worried me most was the knowledge that 400 seriously injured people were distributed across the whole of southern Thailand and that if they were not flown out within two to three days, they would die. And we were responsible for them. If we didn't do it, no one would.
MedEvac aircraft were urgently summoned and the army in Singapore loaned us helicopters. Karsten Tietz speaks of “a mammoth effort” and unbureaucratic decisions which had to be made quickly.
The telephone rings. Should a German father of a little daughter whose wife and second child died in the tsunami be flown to a hospital in Bangkok at a cost of 80,000 dollars? Now, right away? Tietz recalls: “I didn’t give any thought to liability, recourse and all those kinds of issues. I was only thinking of the daughter, who was about eight years old.”
After a few days, when all the seriously injured had been flown out, the systematic identification of the many dead began at the beginning of January. This was to take “well over a year”, according to Karsten Tietz. In total 550 Germans lost their lives in the tsunami in Thailand.
Karsten Tietz remains at the Embassy in Bangkok until 2006, where he also compiles reports on “Lessons Learned”. In the wake of the tsunami, for example, ready-packed “crisis containers” are deposited in various places throughout the world.
Reconstruction in Aceh
The Indonesian province of Aceh was particularly hard hit by the tsunami. Michael Banzhaf, now deputy ambassador in Kazakhstan, admits that following the tsunami he first had to look on the map to see “where exactly it was”. At the point he had no idea that reconstruction in the region would keep him fully occupied for about a year from mid‑2005.
Aceh is a province in the extreme north west of Sumatra – and at the time of the disaster it had already been crippled for almost three decades by the civil war over independence. It was 15 August 2005 before the government and the rebels signed a peace agreement in Helsinki.
Tens of thousands dead or homeless
“Disasters, if you only hear about them in the media, always remain abstract,” says Banzhaf, the then‑head of the German Embassy’s branch office in the province capital Banda Aceh, which was set up in the wake of the tsunami.
“We spoke to people who had lost their entire family in the tsunami,” recalls Michael Banzhaf. “Wife, children, parents. In that situation you can only stand there, speechless – because any words of consolation just sound hollow.”
In the face of “such a colossal disaster”, the coordination team led by Michael Banzhaf at the German Embassy’s branch office were not so badly off. An at least outwardly impressive villa served as living quarters and workplace, like “a big communal house”.
The technology worked well enough for communication to be possible. There were the usual power cuts typical for the tropics. It goes without saying that the house infrastructure was rotten, and all kinds of creatures had made themselves at home there, ranging from a mongoose to bats and of course most unsavoury characters such as rats and cockroaches.
Looking back, Banzhaf stresses that the teamwork was all-important. “The colleagues from the Federal Foreign Office as well as private and state implementing organisations showed incredible dedication.”
Breathing life into the Partnership Initiative
After direct emergency assistance had come to an end and initial reconstruction measures been undertaken in Aceh, from mid‑2005 the main focus was on further reconstruction work and implementation of the Partnership Initiative launched by the Federal Government.
“At the time we placed a high priority on establishing school partnerships,” explains Banzhaf. “And of course we hoped that in the long term, despite the major cultural differences, an exchange could take place between our societies.”
Speaking today, Banzhaf says he never asked himself why it had to happen. Looking back, he even describes it as an experience he would not have wanted to miss.
What I take with me from my time in Aceh is the feeling of having been able in some small way to improve things for the people there.