December 15, 2009 / 12:07 AM / 10 years ago

FEATURE-Built back better in Aceh five years after tsunami

UNPRECEDENTED AID RESPONSE

The stunning television pictures of a phenomenon almost nobody had ever seen, coming a day after Christmas, and killing thousands of Western tourists on sun-drenched beaches prompted an unprecedented outpouring of charity from across the world. Governments, aid agencies and individuals pledged $7.1 billion for Indonesia alone, and remarkably, $6.7 billion was disbursed — and used effectively by all accounts — in a country that ranks near the bottom of world corruption rankings.

The biggest task was building permanent homes for the 635,384 people displaced by the Dec. 26 disaster and another big earthquake that hit western Sumatra three months later.

Nearly a year afterward, hundreds of thousands were still living in tattered tent communities or temporary barracks.

“The one thing that I don’t think we figured out is when you have got hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless, getting them back in permanent homes is always the slowest thing,” Clinton, 63, said.

The reconstruction effort faced other daunting challenges. Aceh was a conflict area, beset by a three-decade old rebellion that had killed 15,000 people, mostly civilians. The province was under martial law and relations between the people and the central government were tense.

An August 2005 peace agreement took care of that, and the former rebels have now been elected to power in the provincial government, which has been granted special autonomy.

“The greatest testament to building back better was the peace agreement,” says Jonathan Papoulidis, special adviser to the U.N. coordinating office in Aceh. “It can’t be stressed enough.”

The peace agreement allowed reconstruction to proceed unfettered. Some 900 organisations either gave aid money or put in work. A motley army of backpackers, retirees, and religious do-gooders including Scientologists, began pouring into a province that had hitherto all but banned visitors.

Aid experts say given those conditions what ensued was nothing short of a minor miracle.

Though confusion sometimes reigned among many aid groups with varying agendas, they built more than 140,000 homes, 1,700 schools, 996 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports, 3,800 houses of worship, 363 bridges and 3,700 km of road, according to BRR data.

Over 155,000 people were given livelihood training and nearly 70,000 hectares of farmland were reclaimed.

The last of the aid agencies are now pulling up stakes. The former rebels in the Acehnese government will now take the baton. Their challenge is to sustain the recovery, Papoulidis says. “So much has been gained and it’s a happy ending. Now how do we move to the next chapter of this phenomenal story.”

TSUNAMI WRECKAGE

I finally stumble upon some wreckage of the tsunami, a 30-foot fishing boat sitting atop a house in a middle-class neighbourhood. It’s odd, almost comical. Tourists take pictures.

A plaque at the foot of the abandoned house says 59 people left awash in the first tsunami wave clambered aboard and were saved when the second one hit. So the boat was really an act of providence and not a relic of tragedy.

Majiburrizal, 35, an anchorman on local television news who lives next door, said he would like to fix up the house and turn it into a proper memorial.

“I hope not only the physical part of Aceh is repaired, but the mentality as well, because after the tsunami many countries across the world gave support, but after five years, Acehnese must become self-sufficient,” he says.

On the road to the airport is a large field enclosed by white concrete walls and a large gate. The back wall has been sculpted to look like undulating waves. Beneath the freshly planted grass lie 45,000 tsunami victims, one of the largest mass graves in the world.

The last time I was here, the field was muddy and lumpy, adorned only by the candles people had lit around it. Like the ship that is now part of a neighbourhood, and the boat atop the house, the dreadful mass grave has become a stylised memorial, a stop along a tourist trail.

What was once so monstrous has become something almost inspirational, depersonalising the trauma and institutionalising painful memories of one of the worst catastrophes in history.

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Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Sugita Katyal See "Surviving the Tsunami: Stories of Hope", a multimedia web documentary and interactive map -- tsunami.trust.org

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