Life goes on in Aceh after tsunami

The boy's body lies still in the water.

His arms are spread, his head rests against a rock. Small waves lap across his torso.

For the briefest moment, he is an echo - a macabre, decade-old ghost against the bright red Acehnese sunset.

Unbelievable pain backed by unbelievable beauty. Then he opens his eyes, laughs and bounds into the water.

The boy is less than 10 years old and wouldn't have known the hell that enveloped the coastal belts of South-East Asia on Boxing Day 2004.

But he would know the stories: how this beach used to be a different shape, how tens of thousands of children are no longer around to swim where he swims and how this sand was once littered with bodies that lay still in the water, arms spread, small waves lapping across their torsos.

For his whole, short life, the boy would have been told that if the ground shakes and the water rushes back into the ocean, he should run as fast as he can to higher ground.

As soon as children learn to walk here, they are taught how to run.

When the sun rises on Aceh this Friday, it will be a decade since the biggest natural disaster in living memory levelled the region and changed it for ever.

"Yes, a tsunami happened 10 years ago," Mujiburrizal says, sitting on the front porch of his house and calmly explaining what he thought at the time was the apocalypse.

"It changed everything in our lives."

When the water reached the former fisherman's house in Lampulo, more than a kilometre from the ocean, most of the people had only just woken up.

A wall of thick black water surged through the streets without warning, rising more than 4m and ripping up everything in its path.

Houses, cars, bodies and debris swept past as Mujiburrizal ran to the house next door and climbed to the second storey, huddling with his neighbours and praying to God.

He thought: "If today is the last day, I will accept it."

The water rose past his neck and just when he thought he would die, a fishing boat smashed into the building and wedged itself next to where he was treading water.

He climbed aboard, helping 50 others make it to safety.

The group spent seven hours on the boat, which kept them centimetres above the water, grabbing food and supplies that were swept past. "When we came down, everything here was already collapsed, was completely destroyed, houses were destroyed," he said.

Traumatised, Mujiburrizal fled the city for a village away from the devastation. When he returned to survey the damage, almost everything he knew was gone, except the shell of his home and the boat that saved him - still lodged on the roof of the house next door.

"And it came to my mind that this boat was meant to stop there to help us," he said.

It took survivors a year to clear the bodies from the area, another year to sanitise it and a third to remove all the debris.

On the fourth year, Mujiburrizal returned to his home.

The wave not only changed the geography of Aceh but also the nature of its people.

The disaster brought the long-running battle between Aceh separatists and the Indonesian Government to an abrupt end. Peace came to a region that had been closed off from outsiders for years.

Then there was the flood of those outsiders - foreign non-government organisations, backed by billions of dollars in aid and reconstruction money.

And then the NGOs' withdrawal.

"That was difficult to deal with," survivor Aidil explains.

"We had nothing, then everything, then nothing again."

As you drive through Banda Aceh now, there are surprisingly few reminders of the event that levelled the city. A decade of post-tsunami reconstruction and nine years of peace has transformed the region.

Ten years after the tsunami killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, roads and bridges here have been rebuilt, there are houses on the beach, trees have grown back and the millions of tons of debris that covered the island are gone.

The few reminders that remain are the things they couldn't move, like the 2600-tonne generator ship that was washed 5km inland and now sits as a tourist attraction, with stalls selling "tsunami" shirts and keyrings.

And then there are the ubiquitous evacuation signs - ora-nge shields with arrows pointing to the direction of safety.

There are no words, just a silhouette figure running up a hill with a wave curled up against his back.

Gaya Triana was one of those rescued by the boat that smashed into Mujiburrizal's house. She now works in the cavernous Tsunami Museum, which she says is a place for quiet reflection.

When you walk in, you have to go through a thin, pitch black passage with 5m-high walls with water pouring down them.

"It is so people can be scared . . . can feel what we felt," Gaya explains.

"Conditions have become better," Mujiburrizal says, and apologises before calling the catastrophe "a blessing in some ways".

"If you see the way Banda Aceh is today. It is more tidy, more developed and more modern than before the tsunami.

"We are certain that the tsunami was a disaster from God, we believe this.

"But life must go on for sure.

"And in the second opportunity of life, we can live better than before."