Life

The last Portuguese-Acehnese
of Lamno


Aboeprijadi Santoso, Contributor/Lamno, Aceh

Hundreds of Acehnese men, women and children of mixed Portuguese origin were swept away by the tsunami last December.

They were the last remaining descendants of Portuguese-Acehnese communities in Lamno. Like the ""depoks"" (residential areas) of mixed Dutch origin living near Jakarta, they were part and parcel of the local society.

Yet they have always been considered exceptional, with Acehnese being both proud and fond of them. Girls of mixed Portuguese-Acehnese birth are said to be very beautiful, and are referred to as mata biru (blue-eyes).

That exotic image is now gone. Of this mixed-blood group, there is now probably only one survivor, Jamaluddin Puteh, in Lamno, the city port of West Aceh where Portuguese sailors arrived centuries ago. A local paper (Waspada, Jan. 26, 2005) reports that a little girl, aged about 8, has also survived and is now in Medan.

I met two people of Portuguese descent in Aceh; Cut Pudo in Darussalam, Banda Aceh, and Jamaluddin Puteh in Lamno.

Lamno, a coastal town some 200 km from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, is beautifully situated at the foot of a hill, like Beirut and Lisbon. The town was one of the areas most devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. The coast used to be a natural port and fishing village; what remains now is just a vast flat area, full of debris.

There are no reliable figures about the Portuguese; they may have totaled some 400 men, women and children, local sources said. Very few lived outside Lamno; some may have left for Meulaboh, Banda Aceh or Jakarta before or shortly after the tsunami.

Sources living in camps for displaced people in Lamno said one of the two extended families of Portuguese origin, who lived in Banda Aceh, recently returned to Lamno, but were swept away by the tsunami.

The Portuguese used to live close to each other, making the impact of the disaster even more dramatic for some kin groups living near the coast, as they lost more than other kin groups living elsewhere.

Lamno's coastal villages of Kampung Kuala, Kuala Daya, Lambasu and Ujung Muloh, where most Portuguese-Acehnese lived, were fishing communities. Of their 300 fishing boats, only 30 remain.

They have been integrated into Acehnese society for centuries, preferring to stay in their original locality, Lamno, yet also showing an openness towards the outside world.

There is nothing surprising about this cosmopolitanism. Aceh, after all, was a center of trade and learning in the 17th century. Even today, Acehnese still refer to their homeland as the ""Veranda of Mecca"", meaning a holy place one has to pass through to learn about Islam before going to the holiest place of all, Mecca.

Almost nothing distinguishes Portuguese-Acehnese from other Acehnese; whether in terms of language, religion or housing patterns, nor in their way of life.

It was purely their appearance -- white skin, white or yellow hair and women with blue eyes -- that set them apart. They appear exotic, with women being called ""the blue eyes of Aceh"".

Now they have almost all gone. Reportedly, there are still a few Acehnese families and individuals of Portuguese origin living in Banda Aceh, Meulaboh, Medan and possibly Jakarta.

Cut Pudo, an 80-year-old grandmother, survived the tsunami. Her name, which uses the Acehnese honorific ""Cut"", indicates that she married into an aristocratic family.

The wave carried her for some kilometers, but miraculously, she survived and joined with other displaced people who walked to Banda Aceh, as Lamno was completely isolated for the first few days of the disaster.

A military helicopter took her to a medical clinic and she is now being treated by a Danish orthopedic team in Darussalam, Banda Aceh.

One month after the disaster, she looks fresh, but is still traumatized and confused, and was crying when Radio Netherlands found her in a hospital tent. She speaks only Acehnese, but is still unable to tell her story. Her relatives say she has even forgotten her real name, claiming to be Siti Hawa (Eva).

Jamaluddin Puteh, 40, is most probably the only survivor remaining in Lamno. A fisherman, he was at sea when the tsunami hit.

As the wave ebbed he returned home to find his village, Kampung Kuala, gone, along with his three daughters. His wife, now in Meulaboh, survived as did his sons, Dedi Darmadi and Irwandhy, who live in Sabang and Banda Aceh.

""What can I do now? I don't know, I have nothing, absolutely nothing,"" he said calmly, but with a hint of desperation.

Pak Jamaluddin is popular among locals. He often asks people to join him for a chat in a coffee shop. Amicable, modest and soft-spoken, he is known as gamputeh (the white man). This nickname has absolutely nothing to do with the name of the separatist group, GAM, but comes from the words agam (man) and puteh (white).

The families of Portuguese origin had always lived peacefully and happily in Aceh until the day of the disaster, said Jamaluddin. The tsunami has changed everything.

""The disappearance of Portuguese-Acehnese is a great loss for Aceh,"" he said.

(The writer is a journalist with Radio Netherlands.)

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