Indonesia: Nias islanders get a place to call home

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Ian Woolverton, Australian Red Cross, on Nias Island, Indonesia.

"I wish you many happy years in your new family home," said Robert Tickner, Chief Executive of the Australian Red Cross, handing a silver key to Joshua, his wife Rosinta and three children for their new house in the village of Sirombu.

Standing on a narrow peninsula on the southwest coast of Nias island, Sirombu was washed out to sea on December 26 when tsunami waves swallowed many of the island's coastal villages, destroying whole communities.

Some 300 people perished in the disaster on Nias, which lies off the western coast of Sumatra, and damage to infrastructure was widespread. Joshua's family was lucky, however. Their house was spared the worst of nature's fury, surviving the disaster with only minor damage.

But worse was to come. In March a second massive earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter Scale rocked Nias. Churches, schools, shops and small businesses were destroyed. Entire communities were reduce to rubble.

Across the island, damaged roads testify to the earthquake's destructive force. Potholed, buckled and warped, they are merely rocky tracks, more like dry riverbeds than roads.

And on either side of the narrow twisting roads, families live huddled under gently flapping blue plastic tarpaulins donated by aid agencies or in tents next to their broken homes - plastic and cloth structures only ever meant to provide temporary accommodation to the homeless.

According to the United Nations, the March earthquake killed over 1,000 people and made hundreds of families homeless, including Joshua's, when buildings already weakened by the Boxing Day earthquake collapsed.

Joshua was at home when the second violent earthquake reduced his house to shattered masonry, broken glass and timber. "I was sad to lose my house," said Joshua. "But at least my wife and children were saved, thank God."

Not wanting to stray far from home, the family lived in a tent for three months on a grass and dirt verge close to their shattered home.

It is now three months since the March earthquake, and people like Joshua and Rosinta have a chance to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

On Nias, Australian Red Cross works with the Zero to One Foundation to help build 254 houses, nine bridges, two schools, three clean water systems and one first aid centre on Nias.

Joshua's family was the first to receive the gift of a new house from the project, worth some 600,000 Australian dollars. In months to come, hundreds more people will move to homes built with donations to the Red Cross by the Australian people.

Many of the homes are still to be built. But on a large green paddock not far from the destroyed village of Sirombu, the shape of new houses under construction and their foundation stones are clearly visible. Although they may be modest dwellings by western standards, here in Sirombu the community welcomes them.

"I am originally from Sirombu," said Fona Marundrury, a gently-spoken man sweating under the midday sun in a plain white T-shirt and dark pants. A respected member of the community, this 39-year-old stockbroker, lives in Jakarta but rushed to the aid of his people when a cousin on Nias called to let him know the island had been struck by a tsunami.

"I was very concerned when I heard there was a disaster on Nias. I found it very hard to imagine what happened to my people. Nobody could tell me anything. So I had to come," he says.

A day later, on December 27, Mr Fona flew to Nias. Hiring a motorbike from Binaka Airport on the island's east coast, he covered 50 kilometres in three hours to get to Sirombu and was one of the first people from outside the village to reach the stricken community.

What he found shocked him. Most of the houses were destroyed. But mercifully, less than 40 lives were lost to the disaster in the village.

"Sirombu is on a very tiny peninsula. So it got wiped out from two directions. The land was practically under the sea. Sirombu was one of the areas worst hit by the tsunami on Nias," said Mr Fona.

The Australian Red Cross housing project in Sirombu is one of the big success stories of the tsunami relief effort so far. It is only three months since the end of the emergency phase of the operation, but already houses have been built and families moved to new homes.

Despite a rapid response to the housing needs on Nias, careful planning and community consultation was vital. Before a single foundation was laid or supporting beam erected Red Cross and the Zero to One Foundation worked with community leaders, to discuss housing needs.

In a roofless earthquake-damaged church, elders, community leaders and heads of households huddled together to sit in broken pews and on bits of timber to debate and discuss. According to Mr Fona, about 200 families participated.

"We sat to discuss such things as the choice of materials. People were asked whether they wanted timber or concrete houses. Whether it was okay to build houses away from roads and sea. Did people like the proposed housing designs? The questions were many but it was a good process," Mr Fona said.

Pressure of work in Jakarta takes Mr Fona away from Sirombu more than he'd like. But every weekend for the last six months, he has made the long and uncomfortable journey from Indonesia's capital to be on Nias. He's very proud of the part he's played to help rehabilitate his childhood home.

"I am very grateful to be here and involved. I thank God there are people from Red Cross willing to help.'

Across the road, Joshua's wife and three young children, Joshua, 11, Ekwivalen, 7, and Obina, 5, eagerly explore their new single-storey home. Neighbours have come to welcome them. And it's very cramped in their front room, where a dozen people sit on plain rugs sipping tea and sharing meals of rice and chicken.

The housing project won't be finished for some months. And though many families in Sirombu will have to endure temporary accommodation for a little while longer, very soon many families of this broken but beautiful village will once more have a place of their own.

"It means a lot to have a place I can call my home," said Joshua holding back tears.