Sunday afternoon, and Lampuuk Beach is crowded with people. The beach goers are mostly local tourists from the nearby city of Banda Aceh, some from as far as Medan, and they’re being watched by four male lifeguards from a wooden pos in the centre of the beach.
In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami swept away this entire village. These young men lost their homes, families and livelihoods. The trauma left an indelible mark, and once Lampuuk was rebuilt, some of the survivors began volunteering their time as makeshift lifeguards.
Thirteen years later, and Lampuuk is now a popular tourist destination. Economic progress, reconstruction efforts, and a peace deal between separatists and the government has transformed the region. Today, twenty lifeguards are guarding a packed beach.
In 2016, the lifeguards formed an official union – Balawista Aceh – in order to monetize the profession and provide adequate training. The move was supported by Aceh’s Department of Tourism, who subsidized training for six of the twenty lifeguards, but insisted they must provide their own salary. Head of Balawista Aceh, Dian Faizin, says all lifeguards are still volunteers and only a select few have received the proper training.
“We’re all still volunteers. Our income is supported by the beach management, and they give us enough for a little coffee or food. In terms of more training, it’s been planned for a while now, but we don’t have the funds. We’re ready, we’re just waiting for the Department of Tourism,” he says.
The lifeguards run peripheral business activities and receive a percentage of profits. They rent banana boat and jet-ski rides, and receive a small income from hiring lifejackets. Head of the Department of Tourism, Reza Falevi, said it was a dangerous practice that distracted the lifeguards, and while he will recommend it be discontinued, the government will not offer an alternative source of funding.
“We recognise that this isn’t structured very well – it’s problematic if a lifeguard is also operating a banana boat, for example,” Mr Falevi says.
“It’s certainly not going to be like that moving forward. All lifeguards will be specifically trained for the job. If you’re talking of a subsidy from the government, we won’t subsidise their salary. The regular subsidy is support for training exercises, and help with equipment.”
There are currently around 150 lifeguards around the Aceh province, less than half of whom have been properly trained for the job. In October 2017, a man drowned at Lampuuk Beach while lifeguards were on duty. Mr Falevi says he plans to train all lifeguards, and expand the program to beaches where it is needed.
In a province renowned for its strict application of Sharia law, all of Aceh’s 150 lifeguards are male. While they are permitted to save a female who is drowning, Mr Falevi says he also plans to introduce female lifeguards in the near future.
“At this moment we don’t have any female lifeguards in Aceh, but there is a need for them, because it’s not just men that are swimming. If there is an incident involving a women, our culture and religion dictates that it’s better to be handled by a women. There will be female lifeguards,” he says.
Many of the visitors to Pantai Lampuuk are local Acehnese from neighbouring villages and other parts of the province. Many still harbor a genuine fear of the ocean, and some, like local grandmother and warung owner Mardiana, refuse to swim since the tsunami.
“Before the tsunami, I swam almost every day. Since then I haven’t swum in the ocean. I’m afraid,” she says.
Lifeguard Khairuddin has worked at Pantai Lampuuk for two years. He is proud to call himself a lifeguard, even if he receives little financial compensation, and says he believes it is his moral duty to keep visitors and local people safe at the beach.
“Since the tsunami, there is a lot of trauma, but everyday that passes the fear subsides a little. Acehnese people are our people, and this is our responsibility to care for them. If Lampuuk Beach is safe again, our lives can return to normal.”