Indonesia's Aceh struggles to rebuild six months after tsunami

By Nancy-Amelia Collins

Aceh, 20 June 2005 - Six months after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck a dozen Indian Ocean countries, killing more than 300,000 people, the residents of Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh province are struggling to rebuild their lives. Many in Aceh are taking it upon themselves to create new jobs and new homes.

Aceh province in northern Indonesia was devastated by the December 26 earthquake and tsunami - as many as 230,000 Acehnese died and more than half a million were left homeless.

Aid agencies, the Indonesian government, and even regional military forces, such as the U.S. and Australian navies, rushed in emergency food, medicine and tents.

All along Aceh's devastated west coast flimsy tent communities sprang up in the rubble of what were once bustling villages.

Now, six months after the disaster, aid agencies and the Indonesian government are cautiously starting reconstruction work, using hundreds of millions of dollars in donations.

Many Acehnese, who come from a proud and independent culture, say they are grateful for the food and tents they have received - but what they really want are homes and jobs, so they are not dependent on handouts.

Zulfikar's attitude is typical. The tsunami destroyed his village and killed most of his family. In despair, the 22-year-old wanted to kill himself.

But then, walking along what was once the coastal road, he saw a barge the tsunami had washed up onto the land. He says when he saw the barge he thought 'This is nice, I can make a store under the stern and earn a living.'

Now, Zulfikar's unlikely restaurant serves noodles and soft drinks to travelers on the road.

But 24-year-old Maya still struggles to rebuild her life. She lives in a refugee tent camp 14 kilometers from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and says a home for her family seems a distant dream.

"The condition is hard, and then when it raining, the rain comes in here, in the tents," she says.

Only a fraction of the billions of dollars in foreign aid has been spent because aid agencies are trying to ensure that the money is spent wisely - and none of it is lost to corruption.

The international auditing house PriceWaterhouseCoopers is helping the Indonesian government, the United Nations and the International Red Cross keep track of the money.

Bernardus Jonoputro is the firm's Indonesia chief. He says new procedures are in place to discourage corruption.

"Now it's completely different nature which is for relief and reconstruction so you'll see that it is advisable that you have a procedure in place as you move forward," he says.

Only in the last several weeks has temporary housing begun going up.

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto heads the Indonesian government's post-tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction agency, known as the BRR. He says the government does not want permanent housing constructed until there has been a chance to thoroughly assess needs and consult with villagers.

"The approach is a participatory approach, the bottom-up approach. in which people at the village level plan their own lay out of the village, plan their own environment, and based on that planning, then we are going to support them," he says.

Mr. Kuntoro says this approach takes time.

"If you don't see something massive process going on the ground, because people are still in the process, we are still in the education process," he says. "... At the grass root, when we mention about village plan, especially in the Indonesian language, they don't understand what it really means, so we have to show them what we really mean with that."

But many Acehnese are growing impatient with this approach. Those who can are building houses from scraps of wood, and re-opening shops wherever they can find a bit of space and things to sell.

Michael Elmquist, the spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, says with more than 250 private agencies working in Banda Aceh, coordinating the reconstruction will be the biggest challenge during the next six months.

"There's a lot of money on board, but you can't do the reconstruction piecemeal, it has to be done as a well coordinated operation so that you make sure that progress is made across the board for all the different geographical areas, all the effected areas in a harmonized fashion," he said.

For the people of Aceh, the coming months are crucial as they wait to see the outpouring of international aid translated into homes and jobs that will let them rebuild shattered lives.