Indonesia: Built back better in Aceh five years after tsunami

News and Press Release
Originally published
View original
By Bill Tarrant

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The ship almost looks like it belongs in the neighbourhood, swept miles inland almost five years ago after a cataclysmic earthquake spawned the worst tsunami known to mankind.

Local touts in Banda Aceh escort tourists around the 2,600-tonne PLTD Apung I, recalling a sunny Sunday morning on Dec. 26, 2004 when the earth shook for almost 10 minutes.

As people ran in panic from their homes, waves taller than the palm trees in their yards and speeding across the ocean as fast as a jet plane crashed into lives here on the western tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island and around the Indian Ocean rim, killing at least 226,00 people.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, flying over Banda Aceh in January 2005, said the city looked like it had "just been hit by a nuclear weapon. Completely flattened". In fact, the 9.15 quake, second-most powerful ever recorded, hit with a force equal to 1,500 times the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

When I last came here four years ago, the ship sat like a hulking horror amid rubble as far as the eye could see. Survivors huddled in tents nearby cared for by charities.

Now, the view from the top deck of the ship is of tidy new neighbourhoods built with some of the $6.7 billion that poured into Aceh. Children play on swings in the Tsunami Education Park next to it.

"I would say that on balance we did build back better, and I think they are better positioned to face the future," former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy for the tsunami recovery effort said in an interview in New York.

A rainbow spans a cobalt sky between the ship and a new $7.2 million, four-storey, ship-shaped tsunami museum, opening this week, a few blocks away.

Not a trace of the quake and tsunami can be seen.

From all appearances they did build back better in Aceh, though appearances can sometimes be deceiving.


Salawati is among those who have put their lives back together, in some ways better than before. When Reuters first met her days after the tsunami, she and her extended family were living in tents pitched on the rubble of their homes on the family compound. Two of her three children died in the tsunami.

Her surviving son had recurring nightmares that another giant wave would come and wipe out the family. Those have now subsided.

The United Nations Human settlements programme rebuilt their homes. The Indonesian reconstruction agency (BRR) brought her to Jakarta for food industry training. Now she makes a shredded fish product that Indonesians like to mix with their rice.

"Mine is number one in Aceh," she says, producing a certificate that attests to that. "I have a big dream of exporting throughout Indonesia, even abroad."

She's not so proud of the house, which at 36 sq metres is smaller than her old one. Another house on the compound, built by an Indonesian housing agency, looks decidedly rickety, which is why a relative who was supposed to move into it is still renting.

It's a common refrain in Aceh. Everyone is impressed with the roads, the offices, the schools and the mosques that have been built. Not that many seem to like their houses, no matter how nice they appear.

Maimun, who lives in a house built by a charity in the ship neighbourhood, offers an explanation. "My house is okay, but if I'd done it myself it would have been a lot better."

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the much admired chief of the BRR that oversaw the recovery effort and who is now the reform czar in the Indonesian president's office, agreed with that sentiment. He said in an interview if he had to do it over again, he'd get the Acehnese to help rebuild their own homes.

"When they were in the barracks (temporary quarters), they got free food, milk and medicines ... But when they got the house, they asked 'Why do I have to pay for electricity, water'".

The government tried that new tact after a devastating earthquake near Yogyakarta in 2006, giving direct grants to the displaced with information on the standards they were to follow in rebuilding their own homes. Surveys showed high satisfaction with the results, even when the building quality was dubious.

The Turkish Red Cross built hundreds of tidy houses with cute gardens in the coastal town of Lampuuk, known as the place where the tsunami travelled the furthest inland -- some 7 km (4 miles) until it smacked into steep hillsides that once showed wave marks 10 metres high.

Bill Clinton and former president George H.W. Bush came here and raised money for the town, whose only structure left standing was the 125-year-old Baiturrahim mosque.

On this day, a long line of dump trucks snaked through the main street, renamed "the Bill Clinton/George Bush Road", building new roads for the town, which has new village offices, a school, clinic, convenience store and gift shop.

The houses have toilets and running water. The mosque has been beautifully restored. People here seem much better off than most places I've visited in Indonesia.

But while the physical debris has been cleared, the emotional wreckage remains for some. At a traditional roadside coffee shop, a handful of young men feel a bit at loose ends. Almost none of them have jobs, none are married.

The tsunami killed a disproportionate number of women, few of whom could swim, encumbered by the sarongs they were wearing, and trying futilely for the most part to hold onto the hands of their children as they ran from the waves.

"No job. No women, no cry," says Andi Rahman, 30. "You know that Bob Marley song? The aid groups helped build houses, and the government has given job training, but no one is bringing in women to aid us," he added, with a smile.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit