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Tsunami 2004: Aceh’s women carry on

On the fifth anniversary of the Asian tsunami of 2004, widows in hardest-hit Aceh, Indonesia, have taken on unfamiliar new roles and responsibilities. But they miss other women: three times more women died than men.

By Kathy MarksCorrespondent / December 24, 2009

Women in Indonesia's Aceh province pan for gold on November 2. Three to four times more women died in the 2004 Tsunami in Aceh. The many widowed women have had to take on new roles in the home and community.

Tarmizy Harva/Reuters/File

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Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Radiah Abdullah used to go fishing with her husband on Sundays. On Dec. 26, five years ago she was five months pregnant, so she stayed home in their village, three miles inland. When giant waves roared through, she climbed on to the roof of the house next door. Her husband tried to flee but, according to a friend who was with him, his motorbike would not start.

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Now Ms. Radiah is running the couple’s little grocery store by herself and looking after their young son, Daman Huri. The shy boy, who stays close to his mother’s knee as she talks, was born four months after a massive earthquake and tsunami ravaged the Indonesian province of Aceh, along with 12 other countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

In Aceh, the worst affected place, where up to 170,000 people died, numerous women were widowed, and like Mrs Radiah, they have been forced to take on new roles and responsibilities. While women had always worked, many found themselves sole breadwinner, as well as head of their household – an unfamiliar position in this conservative, devoutly Muslim society.

One of the hundreds of foreign aid agencies that poured into the province provided Radiah with a new house. But she still finds life tough. “It’s hard to manage by myself,” she says. “My husband used to help me with the business. Now I have to do everything by myself.”

Not enough women

As well as her husband, she misses female company. Across the region, three to four times more women than men died in the tsunami, and children were also killed in disproportionate numbers, according to the World Bank. In Aceh, many men were away, working on their chili pepper or corn farms, while the women and children were at home, by the sea, and were less able to swim or climb trees.

Five years on, the demographics remain skewed in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island. Lampuuk, a cluster of fishing villages west of the capital, Banda Aceh, used to have a population of nearly 6,000; only 750 people survived, just 40 of them women.

Amiruddin, a lanky young man sitting in a traditional outdoor coffee shop in Lampuuk, would like to get married but despairs of finding a wife. “As single men, we have to find women from other villages or towns,” says Amiruddin, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

“But it’s not easy, because you have to collect a lot of money and gold for the dowry, and it’s hard to find work in this area.”

Villages rebuilt from scratch

While such problems remain, Aceh itself is almost unrecognizable from five years ago, when the capital and coastal towns were grim wastelands piled high with the debris of smashed buildings and washed by fetid floodwaters. Now, thanks to nearly $7 billion in overseas aid, the province is a shimmering sea of new houses, schools, clinics, mosques, markets, and streets.

In Lampuuk, where only the mosque was left standing, entire villages have been rebuilt from scratch. An air of normality has returned: shops are trading, teenagers play soccer on a sun-bleached field, couples gather on the crescent-shaped beach at dusk.

Survivors are piecing their lives back together, thanks partly to the livelihood assistance provided by charitable organizations. Lindawati, a widow, received a loan that enabled her to restart her business as a dressmaker. Keeping busy, she says, has helped her to cope with the death of her husband and infant son.

Besides, she says, “I feel lucky because some people lost their whole family, and I still have my daughter”.

Some have experienced a tragic symmetry. Mohammad Dalan, the community leader, was one of many Lampuuk men whose wife died in the tsunami. He has since remarried; his new spouse is Nurbaiti, who lost her husband. In her village, more men died than women, because they were working at the local cement factory, where nearly everyone perished.

“It was difficult to face life at that time, because everything was gone – our homes, our families, our livelihoods,” Mr. Mohammad says. “Slowly, things have got better, but life was more joyful before, because there were so many children here and it was wonderful to hear their voices. It’s very quiet now.”

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