A group of colorfully dressed girls performed an energetic traditional welcome dance when Japanese artist Takashi Murakami visited their elementary school in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province, for a tree-planting event Friday morning.

After planting trees with volunteers in 16 places in the Tohoku region devastated by tsunami in March 2011, Murakami came to Aceh, which experienced an even more deadly tsunami in December 2004, to do the same.

But instead of planting cherry trees as part of the Sakura 3-11 Project he co-founded, he and the Aceh students planted champak trees (locally called jeumpa), because their fragrant flowers are popular in Aceh just as sakura (cherry blossoms) are in Japan.

Right after the planting, he handed a sakura baton, the same kind used in a relay race, to a student, noting it was the 17th school he had visited to plant trees and the first outside Tohoku.

“By seeing the planted sakura trees, it is expected that it will remind the later generation about the story of the tsunami experienced by the previous generation,” he said.

“Just like sakura planted in Tohoku, jeumpa will also remind the current and future generations of Aceh about lessons from tsunami in the past,” he said.

The school in village of Baro in the Meuraxa subdistrict, just about 2 km away from the coast, was selected by the Sakura 3-11 Project as it was flattened by the tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, that killed more than 160,000 people in Aceh province alone.

Of the 180 students enrolled at the school at the end of 2004, only 15 survived, according to Anshari Yahya, a former village official whose granddaughter was one of the dancers who welcomed Murakami.

In 2008, the school was rebuilt and now has 272 students, some of whose parents and grandparents are survivors. Of the approximately 2,400 Baro villagers before the tsunami, only 475 survived.

Newcomers have been slowly arriving and building their own houses in the area, and that has increased the population to around 1,500 people. However, that is still below the pre-tsunami level, said Mulyadi M. Daud, the new head of the subdistrict who is also a tsunami survivor with a child at the school.

Anshari’s granddaughter, Siti Khadijah, 11, a sixth-grader, said she hopes to get a chance to visit Japan someday “to meet schoolchildren in the Tohoku region.

Siti said she and her schoolmates have spoken and shared stories with students in Tohoku via video conferences organized by the Sakura 3-11 Project.

Asked what she learned from the tree planting in front of the schoolyard near a monument showing how the school was flooded by 3 meters of water when the tsunami hit in 2004, Khadijah said people have to prepare for any future tsunami.

“We have to run for safety to higher ground,” she said.

Principal Siti Fachriach Hanum said she wishes Murakami could expand the tree planting rite to other areas “so more people can learn about tsunami, be inspired and expand the bonds between Acehnese and Japanese.”

At the ceremony, the students released balloons on which they wrote their dreams for the future.

The tree-planting ceremony was held in conjunction with the Aceh-Japan Community Art Project 2017, which began last Sunday and ends on Dec. 30. The art event features various activities to mark the 13th anniversary of the disaster.

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