GEORGE TOWN: Hockey coach and dragon boat racing instructor Harjit Singh still cannot shake off the gruesome memories of a humanitarian mission he joined after Aceh’s Boxing Day tsunami tragedy 16 years ago.
He and other mission members were travelling a month later on a tongkang (junk) from Paro, an Aceh village, to Banda Aceh when the boat was hit by massive waves.
“The waves were so big that our boat was lifted up and then dropped several metres. It was as if it would break up in pieces. Some volunteers were terrified and the situation was made worse because only three of us could swim.
“We could have drowned even if we could swim. But the captain told us not to worry,” he said.
Harjit was part of a 30-member volunteer group from the Global Sikhs humanitarian relief team that sailed to Aceh from Langkawi in two yachts. The mission was not for the faint of heart because of the risk of dying from diseases or drowning, and the volunteers had to sign indemnity forms.
They travelled to Indonesia’s semi-autonomous province with a group of Langkawi-based sailors called “The Waves of Mercy” and a US-based group called United Sikhs.
The yachts carried food and medical supplies for tsunami survivors donated by the public and Buddhist Maha Vihara. The sea journey was perilous as rebels from the Free Aceh Movement patrolled the region’s coastal areas.
Harjit said the yachts had to sail with lights dimmed to avert a rebel attack. At Paro, they found corpses scattered all around. The crew distributed the food and medical supplies to the survivors, repaired damaged roads, and moved the bodies to burial sites.
“The villagers were afraid to handle the bodies for fear of spirits. So we carried out the task,” he said.
In one case, a body could not be removed from the rubble, so they had no option but to set the rubble on fire.
The humanitarian mission lasted two weeks, when another team took over. Harjit and his crewmates returned to Malaysia in a Royal Malaysian Air Force Hercules aircraft.
The yachts continued to send aid to Aceh over the next six months.
Harjit said the life lesson he came away with was to be nice to everyone “because life is unpredictable”.
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