In Banda Aceh, hum of normalcy

The clean-up effort has gone better than expected, bringing new optimism to the stricken population.

The hum of normal life is returning to Banda Aceh. In stores and cafes, chain- smoking men swap rumors of lucrative contracts for new homes and roads. At night, teenagers weave through honking traffic on noisy motorbikes, drowning out the muezzin's call from the city's numerous mosques.

It's a far cry from the initial scenes of devastation wrought by the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck on Dec. 26, mobilizing the largest-ever charity response to a humanitarian crisis. Here in Aceh, the hardest-hit region, some 235,000 people are presumed dead.

Bodies are still being recovered from the rubble, but aid workers say the clean-up has gone better than many had expected, filling the stricken population with new energy and optimism, and encouraging many who fled to return.

"The fact that the streets were full of corpses [before] had a huge impact on people. It was a reminder of everything that had happened to them. It's very important that society can pick up and go forward," says Jesper Lund, a relief coordinator for the United Nations. "Banda Aceh is alive today because people have the will to move on."

One of them is Nurhayati, a shop owner and mother of eight who lost her elderly parents and sister to the giant wave. She has recently reopened her furniture store, one of two buildings still standing on the block. She boldly advertises new stock for sale. For the hard-up - of which there are still many - she offers sodden half-price mattresses that her sons have dragged outside to dry.

"I've got to work, it lifts my spirits. But then I look outside and it's so empty, everything has gone," she says.

Most of the US and other foreign troops deployed to assist relief opera- tions have left, signaling that the initial crisis is over. Japan is due to pull out its contingent of 1,000 soldiers on Mar. 10, followed by Australia and New Zealand.

Sensitive to nationalist opinion and its long-running battle with armed separatists in Aceh, the Indonesian government has told foreign troops to leave by Mar. 26. Last week it held a second round of talks with rebel leaders, who hinted at a possible compromise in their demand for independence and agreed to further talks in April.

However, the shift in Aceh from immediate survival to rebuilding lives has not been smooth, with friction over housing, farming, and land rights surfacing over the past month. Mar. 26 is also the government's own deadline for a reconstruction plan that is expected to cost $4.5 billion over five years. For impatient tsunami victims and many foreign aid groups, though, Jakarta's dithering arouses anger and frustration.

Along the west coast of Aceh, where aid has flowed more slowly than in the capital, several thousand destitute villagers wait in tent camps for rebuilding to start. Outside the town of Lamno, one family has built a tiny windowless shelter on the foundations of their old house, a mile inland.

Squinting against the sun, Mariati says her carpenter husband is scavenging wood to build a new house so her family of seven can leave their tent in a refugee camp. She shakes her head at the idea of moving into another temporary shelter while the government decides what to do with her village, in which no solid structure remains. "I don't want to live anywhere else.... Why can't we live in a tent here? Then my husband can keep working," she says.

Experts say resolving these and other conflicts will stretch both Indonesia's government and the international community, which will be funding much of the reconstruction. "We have avoided the worst-case scenarios ... and the emergency stage is over. But in terms of providing shelter and livelihoods, we are very much in the early stages," says Hafiz Pasha, UN assistant secretary-general who heads a tsunami taskforce.

Rather than waiting around, many residents are trying hard to keep busy.

As head of Banda Aceh's midwife association, Erni Nurdin used to train nurses at her private clinic in the same district as Nurhayati's furniture store. Her eldest daughter was due to graduate in January with a medical degree. But the tsunami carried away her three daughters and husband.

One month ago, though, she rented a shop across town and put up a hand-painted sign that reads "Midwife Erni." With help from her son, and using donated medicines, Nurdin opened her clinic last week and has received a steady stream of old and new patients.

"I want to work and work and never stop to think. I don't even want to sleep. I don't want to think about my house and my children," she says.

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