Two paths back from tsunami

Three months after the tsunami took away three of his older children, his home, and his livelihood, Alamsyah is impatient to rebuild his life. He has hammered together a home of scrap planks of wood, sheets of tin, and now just wants to get back to work. Hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign assistance - the largest humanitarian outpouring in history - mean nothing to a man who has lost everything except the will to live.

A few miles away, at a camp farther inland, Muammar Ma'aruf sits in a tent in the heat of the day, bouncing his five-month-old baby, Tasya, in a small hammock that hangs from a spring. He has faith that the government or some foreign charity group will provide housing for him and his wife and children, at least until they can find a home of their own.

On paper, these two men look similar. Each is married with two young children. Each led a comfortable working-class life before the tsunami: Alamsyah as a fish-seller and taxi driver, Muammar as a freelance graphic artist for the TV station.

Yet both have chosen completely different paths to rebuilding after the tsunami.

Muammar is relying on foreign charity, while Alamsyah is choosing to go it alone. The Monitor will follow them over the next year, offering a window into the challenges of two families as they struggle to rebuild both their homes and their lives.

The scale of the relief and reconstruction effort is enormous, but the scale of the problem appears, if anything, just as large. At latest report, some 533,000 individuals were displaced by the tsunami. Today, many of them are living in the cramped homes of host families; the rest are staying in temporary living centers or in homes they themselves constructed.

The UN and other humanitarian groups like the International Organization for Migration (IOM), along with the Indonesian government, are just now beginning the work of building temporary homes, part of a long-term plan to resettle nearly 720,000 people.

At present, the international community - 95 governments and humanitarian groups - has pledged or contributed $6.7 billion for the overall tsunami effort around the region. It's an unprecedented outpouring of charity - all of which will likely be needed to rebuild entire communities while simultaneously feeding and housing those who have lost everything, even their jobs.

Zuhrasafita has done it again. She has returned from the market with a pocket full of money, and no groceries. It's something that she has done off and on since the tsunami struck. Zuhrasafita says that being in a crowd reminds her of the tsunami, when crowds in her neighborhood of Punge Blangcut fled for their lives.

"We saw the wave on the horizon, like clouds, black against the sky," says the young mother, who had left her children, daughter Tasya and 3-year-old son Athafayath, with her brother at a neighborhood on higher ground. "I still have trauma from that day. There were so many people, and I was at the front of that crowd. Behind me, they all died." She pauses, wipes her eyes. "Now every time I go out into a crowd, I'm afraid people behind me will die again."

For the past few weeks, she and her small family have lived in this camp for displaced people in the village of Tingkeum. Most are rice farmers, and they spend their days wading out into ankle-deep water to pluck out weeds from the rice paddy. Little boys with sticks rush out to chase off wandering water buffalo - unless the little boys with sticks are looking after the water buffalo, in which case they don't mind if the animal stops for a quick snack.

Tingkeum residents have welcomed the 107 families, some of whom are relatives. They have loaned land and even conducted surveys so that the IOM can build shelters.

"We asked for 107 houses, because there are 107 heads of families here who need homes," says Umar Dani, the manager of the camp, and owner of a local convenience store in the village. "At first, the IOM said they would build 52 houses, but I hope they will build more. These people have nothing, so we are happy that we can help them."

The generosity of Tingkeum is almost breathtaking, and a rare glimmer of hope for people like Muammar and Zuhrasafita, who have already seen more tragedy than most people see in a lifetime.

The pair say the villagers treat them like family. But even families can get on each other's nerves. With people packed side by side in tents, a temporary living center - aid groups avoid the term "refugee camp," since "refugee" signifies someone who has had to flee his country - is a cramped affair. The sounds of one tent - an argument, a soccer match on radio - drift to other tents.

It was for this reason that Muammar refused to move his family into an even more crowded camp at the TV station. There, people had to queue up for toilets and food, and Muammar says he didn't feel comfortable leaving his wife and children. In Tingkeum, the atmosphere is relatively easier, the possibility of better housing more imminent.

The couple don't fit the usual description of "victim." Both are extraordinarily upbeat and friendly. They are religious, but like many Indonesians, they follow an easygoing, nonconfrontational form of Islam. Their son, Athafayath, often entertains the family by singing the Bon Jovi rock song, "It's My Life."

Yet Zuhrasafita hasn't fully recovered from the events of Dec. 26, 2004. She survived by climbing a tree, clinging for her life while others were swept away. Muammar was at work. Her home - a brick rental in the seaside neighborhood of Kaju - disappeared, along with most of her friends, neighbors, and members of her extended family.

Like many survivors, Zuhrasafita and Muammar went to live with family far from the coastline. But after a month, this arrangement began to feel too crowded. Muammar's friends advised him to take shelter at a government camp for survivors at the TV station. But that too was crowded.

Then Muammar heard about a camp in Tingkeum, miles from the sea. The IOM had promised to pay victims cash for their labor in building temporary shelters. Muammar shifted his family into a tent there, and now he is waiting for a house of his own.

"To build our own house at this point would be difficult, because of money," says Muammar, as he takes a sketch pad and begins to doodle, drawing the outlines of a helicopter. He has not been back to the station, which was damaged and has not hired him back yet. "All we want is for the government to build a house in a different place, not on the coast."

He switches to a few words of English: "I hope, we hope. We are not pessimists."

Zuhrasafita takes little Tasya from the hammock and holds her to her chest. Beside her on the floor is a cooking stove, along with sacks of rice and sugar, tins of cooking oil, and canned fish - all of it donated each week by relief organizations like the UN High Commission for Refugees, Mercy Corps, and the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Aid like this has helped this family survive, since both parents have lost their jobs.

Just down the lane, past groves of banana trees and hardwoods, carpenters have begun laying the foundations for the shelters. They are designed by engineers at the Bandung Institute of Technology - Indonesia's top university for science - to be cheap, easily assembled, well-ventilated, and quake resistant.

There is a buzz in the village that the new families may soon be able to move out of their tents and into proper homes.

"We know we are not alone," Zuhrasafita says. "God never sleeps. I think that God will help us. And I hope that Acehnese people will be better off than before the tsunami. We are very sure about this: The world cares about us. Not just people here, but people around the world care about us."

Zuhrasafita says she still wonders why the tsunami hit Aceh, Indonesia's most Islamic province. "I don't want to say about others, but maybe God has given me this test to wake me up from bad habits," she says. "God won't give us an exam that doesn't have answers. If God gives us a test, we must be able to pass it. That is our prayer."

Alamsyah walks around his becak, a motorized rickshaw, with a wrench in his hand. The engine was full of seawater when he found it. The transmission is shot. The canopy that covers the passenger seats was shredded by the wave that hurled the vehicle half a mile inland.

The becak is his livelihood, so Alamsyah is happy to have found it. If he can get it working, he can again start transporting fish to the market, earning money to feed his wife and two children without aid.

The couple does take some assistance, visiting a local camp in the fishing village of Lampulo that has been carved out of the Hotel Rajawali - a concrete structure that survived. There, they and others receive monthly allotments of rice, sugar, and oil.

But now, Alamsyah has fewer mouths to feed. He found his becak while he was searching for the bodies of his three older children - 14-year-old Rahmat, 9-year-old Risa, and 7-year-old Khalid. Alamsyah knows he will probably never see them again.

But Alamsyah is not the sort to mull the past. While neighbors wait for government-provided housing - barracks that can each house 12 families - Alamsyah rushed back to the flattened wasteland he called home, and started to build again.

Today, his family lives in a small wooden house built of scrap wood, window frames taken from destroyed homes, a door he found someplace, and corrugated tin sheeting as a simple roof.

The land belonged to his brother, a fisherman whose whole family disappeared. Alamsyah knows that he, too, could be swept away by another big wave. But he can't worry about maybes and could-bes.

"This is my brother's land, so if we don't build here, we might lose it," says Alamsyah. "We're starting from zero. If we have enough to eat, and if I can get my becak working, then that is good. If the government wants to build a house for us, that would be good, but I don't think that's possible yet."

The sheer grit of Alamsyah and his wife, Juriah, is strangely reassuring. Where others see complete devastation - Lampulo is a 360-degree landscape of flattened homes, salt-water ponds, and boats washed hundreds of meters inland - Alamsyah sees opportunities. And yet, if he is a hardy entrepreneur, it is only by necessity. "The government is building shelters in other neighborhoods, but they are too far from my work," he says. "I don't know if a tsunami might come again, that is up to God. I just need to take care of my life."

Most homes in the area were shaken to the ground and swept away by one, two, three massive waves, leaving no sign that anyone ever lived here, except for scattered bricks, chunks of concrete, and a few tiled foundations. Yet many people are rebuilding, often in small clusters, claiming territory before it is taken away by the government or allotted to someone else. Most are fishermen or rickshaw drivers, like Alamsyah.

The materials come from homes further inland, solid structures that are still standing but damaged. Some owners have put up Indonesian flags, not out of patriotism, but as an indication that they are still alive and don't want their homes looted.

Inside, on white tile floors, Alamsyah and Juriah sit with their two sons, 2-year-old Reja and 6-year-old Feri, all that is left of their family of seven.

When the earthquake struck, Alamsyah was delivering fish in the city. Feri was with relatives inland. Juriah was in the street, chatting with neighbors about the quake with Reja and her three older children. Then she heard the shouting: Water!

With her children, she ran to the tallest building, a two-story house. Reja was in her arms, but the other three trailed behind on the staircase, the oldest holding on to Juriah's hand. When she reached the second floor, there were 100 people there.

"When the wave came, there were only 15 of us left, and my children [Rahmat, Risa, and Khalid] were gone," says Juriah, as she ties Reja to her hip with a head scarf.

Some fishermen were at sea at the time, unaware of the disaster until they reached shore that evening or later, to find homes destroyed and families scattered or swept out to sea. But they had their boats, and today Lampulo is thriving once more.

"I have heard that the government is going to provide housing for victims," says Juriah. "We don't want to wait for others to build Banda Aceh. We can do it ourselves."

Rugged rebuilders

Gunther Kohl, an engineer at the German government development agency, GTZ, says this rugged individualism is common. "Fishermen are doing what they have always done, they go out and build their own houses," he says.

As chief engineer of GTZ, Mr. Kohl is part of the planning process to construct 12,800 387-square-foot homes in 10 relocation centers. He understands that many families may be impatient, but says that building a large city like Banda Aceh is so complex that the government needs time.

"If the government wants to say that nobody can build within one or two kilometers from the sea, then this means the government has to find new land to build on," says Kohl. "Then land rights have to be sorted out and people will have to be compensated for land they've lost. It's so complex it's unbelievable."

In the meantime, Alamsyah is happy to have a roof over his head. His house has survived almost daily aftershocks, even the major quake on March 28. After one relatively minor shakeup, his family rushed out of the house, in case some of the roofing caved in.

It's not much, but for now, it's home. And his becak is working again, though it still needs some repair before Alamsyah can start his business again.

"We will be here," Alamsyah says with a wry grin. "If I'm still alive, I will be here."

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