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In Aceh, building peace amid building pains

The province must continue post-tsunami reconstruction while delivering on last year's peace accord, which was aimed at ending three decades of separatist fighting.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 28, 2006


Mahfud pulls on his black gumboots and stomps along the exposed riverbed to where a wheezing mechanical digger is scooping out gravel and sand. On the riverbank, two yellow trucks wait in the drizzling rain to collect their loads, destined for Aceh.

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On an average day, says Mahfud, a rebel soldier- turned-businessman, over 100 trucks make the 1-hour run to Banda Aceh. He's ploughed $11,000 into his extraction business since last November, and is starting to see a return on his investment.

"I'm happy to be in business, and to be making money," he says.

Two years after the foundations of Aceh were shaken to the core by an undersea earthquake, then pummeled by an unforgiving wave, the province is confronting dual demands: to rebuild homes and roads while delivering on the promise of a peace accord signed last year after three decades of separatist fighting.

That accord is already delivering tangible political rewards to the rebels, just as many residents are seeing new homes rise in washed-away neighborhoods. Maintaining momentum on both fronts is essential, aid workers say, warning that to deal with tsunami relief in isolation is to ignore the complexities of reconstruction in a province torn by bitter fighting fueled by competition for rich natural resources.

"There is a convergence between tsunami recovery and conflict recovery.... (Without) a sustainable peace in Aceh, if you consider the aid as an investment in its future, you will not get a good return on your investment. It's also a question of equity, having some balance. There are victims of both tragedies," says Eric Morris, the UN's recovery coordinator for Aceh.

In this city of 200,000 people, billions of aid dollars have begot a somewhat chaotic approach as hundreds of private and intergovernmental organizations have marked out their territory.

Acehnese overwhelmingly seem to welcome the foreign-aid presence. Stricken communities are seeing the world's pledges of support turn into new schools, houses, hospitals, and mosques, with the pace of rebuilding picking up considerably in the past year. Along Aceh's coastline and offshore island, some 50,000 permanent houses have gone up over the past two years – the majority built this year.

But recovery has hit roadblocks – substandard housing, disputes over land rights, and uneven job creation among them. Angry residents have protested against the Indonesian government's reconstruction agency, known as BRR, which has faced accusations of graft and incompetence.

The Dec. 26, 2004, quake also shook Aceh's political foundations. By the following summer, leaders of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, signed a landmark peace accord in Finland. Irwandi Yusuf, a GAM negotiator and former political prisoner who escaped from jail when the tsunami struck, is set to become Aceh's next governor after winning a peaceful Dec. 11 ballot, based on an initial count. Final results are expected Jan 2.

But even as Acehnese embrace the peace process, there are concerns over the rising disparity between the rehabilitated coastline and villages untouched by the waves. Most worrying, say aid workers, is the complaint that civilians who have suffered from the long conflict are being bypassed by the international largesse, creating a groundswell of discontent that could hobble the broader goal of a peaceful, prosperous Aceh.

"At first, our brothers in the highlands said our brothers in the tsunami zone should be helped," says Said Fauzan Baabud, a program officer at the UN Development Program. "But what about the people whose houses were burned down, who lost their fields – is there any assistance for them? We're afraid there will be jealousy. We hear complaints from the conflict communities."

The mobilization of international support for Aceh after the tsunami was a catalyst in the peace talks, as donors quickly realized that the conflict was harming recovery efforts. The scale of the devastation also sapped the fighting spirit of the two sides. In contrast, Sri Lanka slid back into civil war despite efforts to use tsunami aid as a bridge between the government and ethnic Tamil rebels.

A recent survey by Indonesia's Ministry of Home Affairs and the World Bank in more than 5,000 villages found that more Acehnese were homeless as a result of violence than the tsunami. While 82 percent of tsunami survivors had since returned home, only 65 percent of those displaced by conflict had done so, leading respondents to conclude that tsunami victims fared better.