Aceh tsunami survivors fight frustrations, demons

By Dean Yates

ACEH WEST COAST, Indonesia, June 19 (Reuters) - High school students in the Acehnese town of Teunom drain rain water off the top of their tent before they begin lessons. They want a new school to replace the one taken by giant waves six months ago.

The village chief in Lhok Kruet wants to know when he can move his people out of leaking tents and rickety wooden shacks to a place beyond the reach of waves, real or imaginary.

In the city of Meulaboh, Mizuar asks why no one will give him money to get his grave stone business back on its feet. In large black letters above his partially rebuilt shop, he has painted a plea, in English, asking for help.

All along the west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province where the Dec. 26 tsunami vented its fury the worst, from the local capital Banda Aceh to Meulaboh 250 km (150 miles) to the south, frustration is growing at the slow pace of reconstruction.

Donors say rebuilding is up to two months behind what it should be because of delays in setting up an agency to oversee reconstruction. It only began approving projects in early May.

"I am not a little disappointed, I am really disappointed. I know a lot of money is coming in for Aceh," said Mizuar, 32.

In scores of conversations along this battered and muddy stretch of recently reopened west coast road, people said they were sick of living in tents or government built barracks and needed jobs.

Most had never heard of Jakarta's plan to compensate them for the loss of their homes. There is little electricity or running water apart from Banda Aceh and Meulaboh.

People said they were not going hungry, but complained there was not enough food. The World Food Programme expects to be feeding up to 800,000 people for another year.

"Each day we wake up confused. We don't know what to do with our lives," said Abdul Malik, 25, at a military style barracks for refugees in Leupung town. He was selling handphones in Jakarta when the waves crashed ashore, killing his parents.


The 9.15 magnitude earthquake that erupted off this coastline six months ago was the world's third biggest in 100 years. It sent walls of water as high as 10 metres (33 ft) barreling into 13 Indian Ocean nations.

No place suffered more than Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra island. As many as 1,000 villages and towns were either damaged or wiped off the map. The number of dead bodies found and buried stands at around 130,000. Some 37,000 are still missing.

From the air in the days and weeks after the tsunami, as relief helicopters flew mercy missions, most of this stretch of once pristine coastline looked like it had been abandoned.

Many survivors have since returned to reclaim their villages from nature, pitching tents or erecting wooden shacks.

Tree stumps, metal and rubble still litter some places. The skeletons of dozens of steel bridges lie on their side in estuaries or rivers, replaced by green military built pontoon bridges.

Some markets were selling vegetables and fish. But farmers are not planting rice, either because they died or their fields were salinated by waves that swept 5 km (3 miles) inland.

And bodies are still being found. The district secretary in Teunom, Mohamad Ansari, said the remains of 11 people were found under rubble and scrubland only a week ago.

Since Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a respected former energy minister, took the reins of the Aceh Reconstruction Agency less than two months ago, he has quickly approved projects worth $1.8 billion. He will manage $5 billion over several years.

Among the major tasks will be to build 130,000 homes and construct or repair 1,226 schools.

Donors say rebuilding must balance speed with quality.

They say it is unfair to be too critical of the current pace of one of the biggest peacetime reconstruction efforts in history.

In a few places, survivors are just getting on with it.

Calang was home to 9,000 people on a pretty peninsula about halfway between Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. The waves roared in from both sides and destroyed every building in sight. Less than 20 percent of the town's people survived.

Under energetic mayor Zulfian Ahmad, who was in Jakarta at the time, workers have built 1,000 temporary wooden homes, government offices and shops.

"If I waited for decisions in Jakarta, maybe only now would I be starting reconstruction," said Ahmad, wearing the crisp light green uniform favoured by provincial officials.

"I just got together those who had tools and we began."

Like so many in Aceh, Ahmad has another reason to focus his mind on rebuilding Calang -- the tsunami killed his wife and all his children. Just thinking about them hurts.

"It's unimaginable to lose your wife and children. Even now, I cannot begin to describe it," he said.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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