APSN Banner

Banda Aceh - where community spirit has gone but peace has lasted

The Guardian (Australia) - January 27, 2014

Kate Lamb, Banda Aceh – At first glance the oddity of a lone palm tree on the shoreline, or a piece of graffiti with the words "hantu laut", meaning ghosts of the sea – also the words spray-painted on the military trucks that collected the dead bodies – could easily be missed by a new visitor to Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city ravaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

In the centre of town the reconstruction process has been so transformative it is hard to believe the deadliest tsunami in history ripped through it nine years ago, killing 221,000 people across Aceh province and leaving more than 500,000 displaced.

But in the tsunami ground zero, where each aid recipient house in the village is a beige replica of the next, the markers are more prevalent. In one street a huge two-and-a-half tonne barge swept in by the wave still rests atop the skeleton of two houses. It now serves as a piece of tsunami memorabilia, and an awe-inspiring reminder of the wrath of nature.

By the coast, the tsunami towers stand like sentinels guarding against the fury of the ocean. The thick concrete pillars are about 16 metres (52ft) high, built about a mile from the shore, a place for people to run to in the event of another tsunami, standing four storeys above the houses around. The top floors are open air and can be used for evacuation, there is also a helipad on each. The safety towers are made of reinforced concrete and can hold around 500 people each. They also offer a clear topographical view of what is pre- and post-disaster.

Sandwiched between lush rainforest mountains and the sea, neat lines of blue squares mark the roofs of the new villages while the centre of town is a kaleidoscoe of colours and shapes, rusty roofs, and the turrets of the impressive central mosque. For the most part, the centre was badly damaged, but not entirely destroyed.

Protect the money

Triggered by a 9.1-magnitude quake off the coast of Sumatra, the tsunami affected 14 countries across Asia but it slammed Banda Aceh the hardest. The scale of the devastation and human suffering was enormous. In some cases the tsunami wave reached 20 metres (66ft) high and speeds of up to 140mph, decimating entire villages and wiping out a third of the city.

"When I looked out the window I was completely taken aback by the sight, everything was flattened, all the houses were broken and the streets were filled with garbage and dirt," says Muslahuddin Daud, an Acehnese activist who fortuitously survived even though he was fishing on the rocks that Sunday morning.

The disaster intensified further after an earthquake struck Nias, an island off North Sumatra, in March 2005. The reconstruction task was mammoth, but it also backed by $655bn (#400bn) in international aid, and was overseen by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a well-respected figure in Indonesian politics.

An energy minister under the former dictator Suharto, the Stanford graduate says he was lucky enough to know about the "birds of the jungle here", a euphemism for corrupt politicians that might have siphoned off the multibillion dollar development fund.

"Here in our culture we don't negotiate with the president but I had to negotiate," says Mangkusubroto of why, three days after traveling to Aceh, he asked for a specific disaster recovery agency to be formed, a seat in the cabinet, and to report directly to the president. "I knew that I was going to sit in the hot seat," explains Mangkusubroto, "I would be the one that would be on the grill and those guys in Jakarta would in a second forget about what I was doing there."

As the director of the newly formed Aceh-Nias Reconstruction Agency (BRR), Mangkusubroto delivered a master plan in the first three months and co-ordinated more than 500 agencies through the phased reconstruction; from the initial cleanup to large-scale infrastructure projects. Across the Aceh province, more than 140,000 houses, along with 1,700 schools, almost 1,000 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports and 3,700 kilometres of road were finished by the end of 2010, a year after the BRR's mandate finished in 2009.

The catch cry of the reconstruction the idea to 'build back better,' has undoubtedly been implemented. The city, even though its centre was not entirely destroyed, is far superior post tsunami.

Through tragedy, came peace

Most noticeably, Banda Aceh has what many Indonesian cities lack – smooth, wide roads, neat waste bins on the sidewalks, and modern waste management and drainage systems. The reconstruction process has been hailed as a success, and as a model to emulate, but it was by no means flawless.

For a start, Aceh was not only rebuilding itself after a natural disaster it was also a society recovering from nearly three decades of sectarian conflict. The tsunami effectively ended the fighting between the Indonesian government and the Acehnese independence movement Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), resulting in a peace agreement in 2005. One Acehnese told me that during the conflict-wracked curfew days he became so accustomed to seeing dead bodies in the street in the morning that he would merely turn the corpses over to check if they were a relative or not.

Today, some say Banda Aceh is a better city not because of its new roads and sparkling new hospital, but because there is peace. Critical to rebuilding trust in a highly combustible society, says Mangkusubroto, was the focus on community engagement.

Yet the approach saw projects stalled for months, sometimes years. Important documents such as land titles and birth certificates were washed away so land ownership could only be determined by interviewing the surviving residents about who owned what, and cross-checking the answers to eventually map out land rights each village. Victims took shelter across the city, in mosques, camps, and the remaining safe houses of friends and family, so the process was protracted, but it was the only way.

The final results revealed the extent to which communities had been turned upside down. Orphans were now landowners and entire families had been wiped out. In other cases, the land where people's houses once stood was now irreversibly submerged. For the most part Aceh was built on the same lines, but in some cases the tsunami completely gauged out the land, altering the landscape and forcing former residents to relocate.

Community consultation was the only way to determine what had once been, and it was also seen as the best way to determine what would be. Mangkusubroto says he decided early on that the Acehnese should choose how they wanted to rebuild their lives and shape their future, rather than have it dictated to them by the government or international aid agencies.

This approach trickled down to community consultation about basic decisions such as whether the tsunami survivors wanted health clinics, new, wide escape roads, and even drainage in their village. Again, it was a very time consuming process. And on closer inspection there was a major miscalculation of local needs.

"Aid organisations were under pressure to spend the money," says Muslahuddin Daud, reeling off a list of empty facilities spread across the province. Driving along the $250bn USAid built road from Banda Aceh to Calang, another town practically destroyed in 2004, there is a huge abandoned university, water treatment plant and most noticeably, hundreds of abandoned houses, a common site across Banda Aceh and its surrounds.

In the small seaside village of Lampu'uk – where the gigantic mosque was the only building that survived the tsunami – hundreds of houses donated by Turkish Red Cross are unoccupied. "Many of the houses are empty because they are owned by orphans, or if they are old enough they have moved," says 56-year-old resident Harun from his porch, "Others are afraid to live in the village now." Harun is the local schoolteacher but these days there are not many students. Of the 600 junior school children in Lampu'uk before the tsunami, only five survived.

By wiping out the weakest swimmers, mostly women and children, the tsunami altered the demographics of entire villages such as Lampu'uk. Harun and his wife Rostiana both lost their partners and children in the tsunami and married during the two years they lived in a tent while they waited for a new house to be built. They now have a six-year-old daughter with Down's syndrome, newly growing fruit trees at their gate and chickens pecking about in their yard, but life in the village is not the same.

The couple say people in the community are much more individualistic now, a sentiment echoed in many Acehnese villages. Rebuilding physical infrastructure appears to have much more successful than resurrecting communities.

A new demography

Aid worker Ibnu Mundzir recalls a poignant discussion he had with Acehnese women about the main changes in social life before and after the tsunami. "Some mentioned that before the tsunami they were one family, one community, but after that a lot of aid came to the community and sometimes the distribution was not fair enough," he says, "community members had to compete among each other."

Daud says the cash-for-work programme, where people were given money to clean up the rubble and rebuild their houses "destroyed the Acehnese social structure" and undermined the Indonesian concept of "gotong royong", or communal work. Instead of people helping their neighbours willingly, Daud says the flow of aid money and especially the cash-for-work programmes post-tsunami has made people reluctant to help their neighbours unless they get cash in return.

Also socially divisive and controversial was the huge variations in the quality of housing provided by different aid groups. The BRR assigned different organisations to rebuild houses in particular villages and locals now refer to some areas according to which groups built them. One relocated village has even been dubbed "Jackie Chan village", after the kung-fu hero and actor campaigned to raise money for the Hong Kong Red Cross. The kindergarten in Jackie Chan village is abandoned and strewn with shattered glass, but the houses are still in good shape – much better than other villages fared.

Some houses were built so badly they were barely livable after several years, infested with termites and topped by leaky roofs. Simon Field, adviser to the United Nations development programme in Aceh during the reconstruction period, says organisations that tried to build homes as fast as possible invariably ran into problems and people were angry when they realised they got the raw end of the deal. "People were frustrated, they might have got their houses quickly but their neighbour down the road got a fantastic house. They started thinking they should have stayed in their tent for two years and waited for a better one," he says.

In other cases, former GAM rebels intimidated village heads into awarding them construction contracts, or even a house. Field even knows one man who scored eight houses, while others got none.

Fisherman Syamsuddin says he rejected a house in Jackie Chan village, choosing instead to live in a makeshift wooden shack by the water. "I don't want to live in that village it's far," he says of the place he was asked to relocate to, "from here I can go straight to the sea".

Mangkusubruto says that in some of the poorer areas he was reluctant to force the fishermen to leave. A day before heading to the Philippines to offer his counsel, the former BRR head is the first to admit the myriad of problems, such as "deep pockets" and duplicated houses. But the greatest achievement, he says, was ensuring there was lasting peace.

"Quality we can argue, OK, numbers we can argue, but you cannot argue with me about whether there was conflict, horizontal, social conflict," says Mangkusubroto, "None. I am so proud."