After the wave, the struggle to rebuild shattered lives

Seven Acehnese young men living in a rough, homemade wooden shack on stilts in the village of Lampuuk, 30km from the northern tip of Sumatra, are learning self-sufficiency the hard way. All are the only members of their immediate families to survive last year’s Boxing Day tsunami—6 000 out of 7 000 villagers died—and rather than be packed off to distant relatives they decided to band together and form their own “family”.

“We’ve known each other for a couple of years, so were friends already,” said Maulida (25) the oldest and unofficial head of the family. “We thought it would be nicer to live together, so then we could help each other.”

After living in a school for three months and then a tent near the village mosque—the only building that survived—for another six, they built their three-room home out of debris scavenged from the rice fields that remain uncultivated.
It lets in heavy rain and they don’t have mattresses, but they are thankful not to be among 67 000 Acehnese still living in tents a year after the 9,2-magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami that wreaked havoc across the Indian Ocean.

More than 132 000 died in Aceh and neighbouring North Sumatra province. Another 37 000 remain missing. Like hundreds of thousands across Aceh, the seven orphans survive on food handouts, cash-for-work schemes and sharing what little resources they have. Maulida and 19-year-old Mawardi are constructing a widows’ home, financed by a Dutch organisation; the rest are at school.

Several aid agencies, including Plan International, which introduced me to the orphans, are active in Lampuuk, but for most of the survivors life is a constant struggle. Permanent housing is on the way, the orphans have been told, although—in a classic case of the poor communication bedevilling the recovery process—none of them can remember the aid agency responsible for building them. “We’ve been told they will be eight-by-seven metres and ready in six months,” said Yusnezal. “We are each going to get one, but we plan to still live together. I don’t know anything else, so we can only wait.”

Waiting is a skill the tsunami survivors are practised at and it will come in handy in the months, probably years, to come. For though 124 international non-governmental organisations, 430 local NGOs, dozens of donor and UN agencies, numerous Indonesian government agencies and many individuals are active in Aceh, reconstruction is likely to take at least until 2009.

Is it fair that the Acehnese will have to wait that long, and why hasn’t more been done already? To try to find some answers I retraced the steps I took in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, going first to south-west Thailand and then to Aceh in Indonesia to compare the two nations’ progress.

Tsunami, what tsunami? That’s the reaction of some tourists in the Thai resorts of Phuket and Khao Lhak, says Andrew Kemp, a Briton whose five-star resort, the Sarojin, was devastated by 10m-high waves three days before it was due to open. It has just started welcoming guests. “We’re already getting people who don’t know anything happened, which is a great sign,” he said.

It’s a similar picture on Patong beach, one of the most bustling parts of Phuket. On 27 December last year, when I arrived, the beach front was destroyed; bodies were floating in basement shops, cars were stacked on top of each other and not a single building was intact. Now it appears to be a normal tourist resort, except for the new tsunami early-warning system towers. “Ninety per cent of the unemployed now have jobs and now the vacancies in the hotels are coming down,” Phuket governor Udomsak Uswarangkura said. “We’re trying to make it better than before, especially in services provided by new hotels.”

Tourist arrivals are some 60% down on last year but are steadily climbing and visitors who have dared to return are usually glad they have because the atmosphere is not sad; indeed many locals seem to take heart from them. “Tourists are afraid the locals might be miserable,” said former Blue Peter presenter Tina Heath, on holiday with her husband. “There’s a poignancy, but it’s not miserable. In fact, if people don’t come back and don’t engage it will be worse for the communities than the tsunami.”

But all is not well in Thailand’s reconstruction programme. Virtually every local I spoke to said the government played virtually no role in consultation or co-ordination. Apparently people have often been left to fend for themselves or rely on aid agencies whose help the government initially said it did not need. “There isn’t a central management or masterplan or overwhelming force to guide everything,” said Kemp. “The result is that the opportunity has been lost to make things that much better.”

This is clear in the village of Ban Nan Rai, in Phang Nga province. Houses have been rebuilt, mostly thanks to foreign donors such as World Vision and Rotary International, but the disparity in standards is striking because the government gave no guidelines. Rawee Lekdam, for example, was given one of the first houses to be built, by a Thai Navy radio station. He is now regretting his “luck”.

“If I had known others with bigger budgets were going to come, I would have wanted that,” he said.

At least these villagers have houses. The Moken people, who have no identity cards or birth certificates, lost everything. To all intents and purposes they have become non-people in the government’s eyes, according to Anchalee Tholkliang of Care International.

If such an attitude from the authorities had prevailed in Aceh, where the scale of devastation was more than 20 times worse, the problems there would be catastrophic. In contrast to Thailand, Indonesia created a special reconstruction agency (BRR) headed by a Cabinet minister. The BRR’s genesis delayed reconstruction in Aceh by several months—aid agencies were forced to put plans on hold while waiting for it to be formed and get its act together—but in the long run it will probably prove the correct decision.

BRR began as a facilitator but it is evolving into a co-ordinating and enforcing agency, setting criteria for projects. That does not excuse the fact that so many people are still in tents rather than some form of transitional shelter. It is hard to know where to pin the blame; it probably lies with everyone involved in Aceh.

As Eric Morris, the UN’s relief co-ordinator in Aceh, put it: “A lot of the systems in place for emergency relief worked, but there’s always a gap between relief and recovery and reconstruction. What we have learnt is that we have a lot to do to make the transition more seamless.” In other words, everyone took their eyes off the ball. By early March no one was dying of hunger, disease was not breaking out and everyone had some shelter, so the recovery community thought it could tick the relief box and move on to long-term reconstruction.

Part of the problem is that most aid agencies have had too much money to spend. They are working on a scale completely alien to them and many have drifted beyond their core competencies. “Just because you have 20 times more money than usual doesn’t mean you can just expand your programme by 20 times,” one senior aid worker told me. “You need a whole new approach and many people haven’t grasped that.”

Actress Samantha Morton, who is an ambassador for Save the Children, had a refreshingly realistic perspective—that perhaps only a non-professional could have—after visiting Aceh for the first time last week. “All the rule books are out the window, and aid agencies are having to communicate a lot better now,” she said. “Everybody has to realise this was the largest-scale disaster ever.”

Having said that, it would be easy to be too critical. Much progress has been made, particularly since October when I was last in Aceh. This suggests BRR’s target of building 5,000 permanent houses per month next year might be achievable and all the homeless should have a new house by mid-2007. It is impossible to rebuild communities without a massive amount of consultation and local participation; this takes time, money and effort. As Anchalee of Care in Thailand said: ‘People didn’t just lose their boats and houses, they lost their community harmony and this cannot be rebuilt overnight.’

Playing a significant role in the acceleration of progress in Aceh is the peace process between Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (Gam), which has waged a separatist insurgency since 1976. They signed a deal in August and the decommissioning of weapons and phased withdrawal of Indonesian security forces has gone better than any analyst could have predicted.

If the Lampuuk orphans have houses and Gam’s guns stay silent, Aceh might soon be the Verandah of Mecca again. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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