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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 March 2007, 11:29 GMT
Saved by tsunami folklore
Destroyed houses are seen in Banda Aceh, Indonesia - 27/12/04
The centre of Banda Aceh was devastated in the 2004 tsunami
In the aftermath of yet another earthquake in Indonesia, Anton Alifandi talks to islanders about how oral history helped them avoid mass casualties following the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Simeulue in February is hot and dry. Along the dusty road from the airstrip to the main town new houses are being built, often right next to ones still in ruins.

Most of the destruction was caused not by the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami, but by a stronger, less reported, earthquake in March the following year. I met Rohayani at her roadside convenience store just 50 metres from the beach.

We chatted on a wooden bench as she was slicing mushrooms in preparation for the family lunch.

The head of the district council said that as a child he was brought up on lullabies about tsunamis

She told me that only a few minutes after the earthquake people were shouting, "Semong, Semong" the local word for tsunami and telling everybody to run as quickly as possible to the hills behind their homes.

She pointed out her neighbour, Hairuman.

BBC map
The earthquake's epicentre was just 25 miles away from the island

"He was one of those who had made sure that we understood a disaster was about to strike," she said, "and told us to run for our lives."

Hairuman was doing some small repairs on his house. For a man in his early 50s, he looks very slim and fit. He recalled the story his father told him about how one Friday in 1907, a strong earthquake hit Simeulue.

Instinctive knowledge

A few moments later people noticed the sea starting to recede, exposing the coral and the fish. They all ran to the beach to collect the fish. Little did they know that the water would soon come back with a vengeance.

The sea flooded in and reached halfway up the hill behind their homes, higher than the tsunami which he himself experienced three years ago.

Hairuman showed me the place where his grandmother, who had been killed by the tsunami, was buried. She was laid to rest near the place on the beach where she was found. A simple head stone marked the site.

Hairuman explained that it was because of the stories about the tsunami that had killed his grandmother a century ago that he and many others instinctively knew what to do in 2004.

Survivors from the March 2005 earthquake
Hundreds of people died after the March 2005 earthquake

Those who had survived made sure that their children understood that in the future, as soon as they see the water recede, they must head for the hills as fast as they can. It is a lesson which they have taken to heart.

The children of state primary school number seven study in a temporary wooden building open to one side. After the earthquakes, many schools in Simeulue are still being rebuilt.

Volatile surroundings

These conditions do not seem to have affected their spirits. They are as cheerful and playful as any children their age. I had come to find out what they had learned from their parents and teachers about earthquakes and tsunamis.

During playtime, we asked them to say out loud what they would do in an earthquake.

They all shouted that they must wait a few moments to see whether there are signs of a tsunami, and then make their way to the hills as soon as there is any danger of a wave of water coming.

Schoolchildren in Indonesia
Pupils are keeping their spirits up despite their school's poor condition

The head of the district council said that as a child he was brought up on lullabies about tsunamis. That they are nature's bath water and that earthquakes are nature's see-saws which they must respect but not fear. It is a way of making peace with a geologically volatile place.

It all seems a very simple and straightforward way of teaching what to do in earthquakes and tsunamis but it has been proven to be very effective.

American and Indonesian scientists who have visited the island said a hi-tech tsunami detection system, such as the one already installed in the Pacific, would not have saved the people of Simeulue from the tsunami because of the closeness of the island to the epicentre of the earthquake.

By the time the warning sounded, the wave would have already arrived.

The island's official death toll in the tsunami was seven, the low figure was almost a miracle considering Simeulue's population of 78,000, the strength of the earthquake and the fact that the epicentre was just 25 miles away.


Of course the geography of the place helped. The villagers did not have to run far from their homes to reach higher ground.

Many people on the Aceh mainland died in the tsunami because their houses were in low lying areas. And by the time the tsunami reached the Aceh mainland it had become more powerful.

The waves on Simeulue reached 15 metres in height in some places, but on Aceh waves of almost 30 metres were recorded.

There is nothing remarkable about the island of Simeulue, but the people who live there can be thankful for the stories they were told as children. They have helped them survive the tsunamis and kept them alive.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 March, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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