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Tsunami 10 years after: How Indonesia built back

Two families show how Banda Aceh has defied a disaster, a decade later. 

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    Young women share dinner along the beach at sunset in the Syiah Kuala neighborhood in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
    Ann Hermes
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Mr. Alamsyah steers his black pickup onto a sodden grassy lot across from a building site where three men lay brick under a broiling sun. Walking up to the site, he deposits a flask of hot coffee on a plank of wood and pulls out a tape measure. With barely a word of greeting to his workers, he brushes dirt from the base of a half-built wall so he can check its height. 

The plot of land, on which a four-room house will eventually stand, lies just 400 yards from the ocean where gentle waves lap at a deserted estuary beach. Nearby, orange-roofed houses with shiny SUVs parked outside dot the landscape. Many other lots remain vacant, waterlogged with monsoon rains.  

Minutes later, a motorbike pulls up and Suwarni Idris, a stout woman in a caramel-gold dress, dismounts along with three of her daughters. She paid $2,800 for the land, and now she’s counting on Alamsyah, a distant family friend, to build a house on it within four months – at a discounted price. She’s come today to monitor the progress after 20 days. “Land is cheap here. This is our only option,” Ms. Idris says, as she hands out sticky sweets wrapped in banana leaves to the workers. 

Alamsyah, a wiry, taciturn man, seems satisfied with the brickwork. He nods at the house’s pillars, which he fashioned from makeshift iron scaffolding and poured concrete. “I’m building this as if it were my own house, like it belongs to me,” he says. In fact, Alamsyah did build his own house, which took him almost a year and provided a crash course on brick-and-mortar construction. “This is a good pace. We’re making progress here,” he tells me. 

The construction under way on this sun-splashed beach is evidence of how far Banda Aceh has come 10 years after one of the worst natural disasters in human history – and a reminder that some work still needs to be done. 

A decade ago, an enormous earthquake and tsunami redrew the coastline of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra. The giant waves – triggered by a magnitude-9.1 quake off Aceh’s west coast – leveled towns and villages, tossing boats, trees, and boulders onto houses and fields. The devastation rippled far and wide: 14 countries within a 4,000-mile radius of the quake suffered huge losses, most acutely in India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. By the time the waves had subsided, the combined toll was an unfathomable 228,000 presumed dead. 

The Dec. 26, 2004, event sparked the biggest ever charitable response to a natural disaster. Governments, individuals, and companies pledged $14 billion in aid, with nearly half of that earmarked for Aceh. Its needs were acute: More than half a million were homeless in a province of 4 million. Coastal highways, bridges, and ports lay in ruins. In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, roughly 1 in 4 residents was missing or dead. 

Critics warned that Indonesia’s work-shy bureaucracy and culture of corruption would tie up donors and divert money intended for tsunami survivors. And aid pledges don’t always translate into money spent on the ground. Would the world gradually lose interest, abandoning the Acehnese and their blighted land? Was it even sensible to reconstruct a coastal city that was so vulnerable to disaster? 

Yet to visit Banda Aceh today is to visit a city that has not just been patched together but largely fulfilled the post-tsunami mantra of aid officials: “Build Back Better.” In an age when massive outpourings of aid often get diverted or diluted before reaching the needy, fueling donor fatigue, much of the tsunami relief money has trickled down to survivors of the disaster – and made a difference. This is evident in the 130,000 new houses, 1,700 schools, and nearly 1,000 government buildings built in the aftermath. Aceh has new airports, seaports, sewers, and potable water systems; it has 2,300 miles of new roads and a rebuilt power grid.

“In terms of physical infrastructure, we are better off now,” says Saiful Mahdi, director of the International Center for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies in Banda Aceh.

Along the shore, warning sirens and evacuation towers stand ready for future tsunamis. Much of the spending was front-loaded to generate jobs and economic growth. A special reconstruction agency headed by a reform-minded politician – who answered directly to the president – made sure that $6.7 billion in foreign and national aid was properly allocated and that the agency itself was dissolved after four years. Its success, and that of other participants in the recovery effort, could make Banda Aceh a model for cooperation in the aftermath of other tragedies that no single nation can overcome. 

True, look closer and you can still find examples of wasteful spending: spare houses in near-deserted villages, fishing boats that had to be scuttled after two years at sea. A US-funded coastal highway foundered because of cost overruns. But the progress that Aceh has made in reconstruction is tangible, and it’s remarkable to those who witnessed its nadir. 

The rebuilding has also been about more than simply restoring the physical past. Before 2004, decades of fighting between separatist rebels and security forces had killed at least 10,000, mostly civilians, and mired a resource-rich province in poverty. For that reason, it quickly became clear that absent a credible peace process, rebuilding Aceh would result in the squandering of vast sums of money. Eight months later, the rebels and Indonesia’s government signed a historic power-sharing agreement in Helsinki, Finland. And that deal has held, bringing peace to Aceh, a new crop of leaders, and an end to its political isolation. This détente set the stage for a post-tsunami revitalization, a new chapter to be written.  

These events unfolded at the altitude of national and global politics. At ground level, struggling to survive in the aftermath were individuals like Alamsyah, a rickshaw taxi driver, and Muammar Ma’aruf, a set designer at a TV station. Both had lost their homes and livelihoods. Three of Alamsyah’s five children perished in the surging waves. To see how foreign aid was delivered, and the choices made by recipients along the way, The Christian Science Monitor followed the two families during the first two years of relief and reconstruction.

Now I’m back in Banda Aceh after a gap of eight years. I want to revisit the families and update their stories, to see what became of their aspirations. First, I have to find them. This may be a job for Philip Marlowe, not the Monitor. 

In Alamsyah’s case, I know where to start looking. We head to Lampulo, a fishermen’s slum where boats traditionally offloaded their catches. The dockside market offered casual jobs for men like Alamsyah, who migrated to Lampulo in 1989, initially to work as a bus driver, before buying a motorized rickshaw. By 2004, he owned his own home, a short ride from the dock. 

Sure enough, when we pull up at Alamsyah’s property, he’s outside hammering nails into a plank. As I approach, his nut-brown face crinkles. I recognize his jug ears, the lean torso, the handyman’s detritus around the yard. “Alamsyah, what’s going on?” I ask him. He grins and lowers his hammer. Ms. Juriah, his wife, who is gutting fish in a metal bowl, swishes over in a red-brown dress.

“Here you are again,” she says, smiling. 

The last time we met, the family was crammed into a two-room shack that Alamsyah had knocked together from scraps. Now they have two brick-and-mortar houses, built back-to-back and bracketed by a covered walkway. CARE International constructed one of the houses, which is identical to others in Lampulo. The second house is Alamsyah’s handiwork, his learn-by-doing project. He’s also put up a wooden kiosk in the front yard where Juriah sells soap, eggs, tea, and other daily essentials to locals. “I take care of the shop. I take care of children. And I take care of my husband,” she jokes.  

Not everyone has rebuilt in Lampulo. While one of Alamsyah’s neighbors, a fishing boat owner, is building a large house, another lot is filled with weeds. Alta Zaini, the district chief, tells me that the current population is 5,400, down from 6,500 before the tsunami. Of the original inhabitants, only 1,500 survived, a reminder of the waves’ power. “There were only 50 buildings still standing,” he says. “We could count them.” 

That means the majority of residents in Lampulo are newcomers, or relatives of those who died. And while aid groups like CARE built hundreds of homes for eligible families, there’s still demand for more housing and other improvements. The crush of work has enabled Alamsyah to graduate from simple carpentry jobs – installing windows and doors – to home construction, with a much bigger payoff. He tells me he paid $7,000 in cash a few weeks ago for his pickup, a 2013 Japanese model. Not bad for a former rickshaw driver charging $10 fares into the city.  

As we sit in the yard, discussing his new career, it strikes me that Alamsyah is reaping the fruits of the tsunami. Its terrible destruction showed him a new path to make a living the only way he knows how: with his calloused hands. I put this idea to him. He nods. “If you compare my old job with my new job, they are both physically demanding,” he says. “But now I’m making more money.” His two surviving boys, Reja and Feri, whom we first met as youngsters playing in the rubble, are now teenagers. And the family has a new arrival, Cut Munira, a 4-year-old who spends her days darting around the yard. She’s part of a post-tsunami baby boom in Aceh among couples who survived and widows and widowers who remarried. According to census data, the number of children in Aceh ages 0 to 4 jumped by 23 percent between 2005 and 2010. Children ages 5 to 9 rose by 8 percent over the same period. 

As I suspect is true for many so-called tsunami babies, the family dotes on her. “Whatever she asks for, she gets,” Alamsyah says. 

It was time to find Muammar Ma’aruf’s family, and I had a bad feeling. Would his story turn out to be a series of painful setbacks, the flip side to Alamsyah’s reinvention? 

Muammar always struck me as a dreamer, even an idealist. He was an artist who painted, and repainted, a single tsunami-
 dominated canvas on sleepless nights. He never seemed to finish it.

We have no phone number and no address for him. But then, there he is, on Facebook. A call to TVRI, the TV station, reveals that he is still in Banda Aceh. As we drive over to where the family lives, I’m surprised by their new address: a chic downtown avenue of banks, restaurants, and municipal buildings. Is this the home that they landed after losing everything to the tsunami? I eventually find him in a dilapidated wood-partitioned house down a muddy path from a roadside food stall. Inside, Zuhrasafita, Muammar’s wife, is still cleaning up from a night of monsoon flooding that left a shin-high watermark on the wall. She greets us with delight and invites us to sit on a mat, the stifling air cut by a plate-sized fan. 

Muammar is on his way back from work. I wait to greet him at the door, a little nervous. When he steps inside, I say “Hello, Muammar. Do you remember me?” In return, I get a sweaty bear hug and a huge grin, minus a few teeth from last time we met. “Yes, yes. Of course,” he tells me. He’s put on a few pounds, and his face seems squarer, but he’s more buoyant than I remember.

He has two tsunami babies to introduce: Jilan Tahany, an impish girl born in 2012, and Meynar Humairah, another girl who arrived in September. Taysa, the elder daughter, born shortly before the tsunami, is also home. Athafayath, the eldest and the only boy, is still at school. 

These aren’t the only big changes in their lives. Muammar has just gotten a permanent job at the TV station after many years of freelance work. The pay is still modest – $300 a month, including some benefits – but it represents security for the family. He also takes on side projects, mostly designing stages for public events. In the front yard I see plasterboard and green-and-white curlicues of wood and polystyrene stacked under a roof. A blank canvas is tucked away in a side room, waiting for inspiration to strike.

But the biggest transformation is what’s happened to Zuhrasafita, known to her friends as Ira. When she met Muammar, she worked as a secretary in a local company. Then, when we met in 2006, she had just completed a one-month teacher training course, funded by a United Nations agency. That was the start of her kindergarten career. “It felt so natural to teach children. I loved it,” she tells me. Ira is now finishing up a bachelor’s degree – a first for her family – and hopes to get a master’s in early education that could eventually enable her to open her own kindergarten, catering to the tsunami baby boom.   

Ira’s academic career is more evidence of post-disaster recovery. Build Back Better always meant more than replacing roads and schools. It meant better jobs and livelihoods, and investing in Aceh’s people, who aspired to be self-sufficient once the aid groups left.

Still, for Ira, it’s a lot to juggle. We drop by one midweek morning to find her in the kitchen, typing on a laptop at a metal trestle table. Her thesis is due that day, and she’s making revisions. Meynar, the baby, is swaddled inside a pink hammock suspended from a ceiling spring-hook, and Ira is rocking her with her left hand and typing with her right. I ask if this is the final draft. “I hope so,” she laughs. Not long after, the power cuts out. I glance at Ira’s screen: The battery icon is nearly empty. 

“Ah! I must save my work,” she says, clicking frantically. Later she heads to the college to ask her professor for an extension. That night she will stay up till 2 a.m. while the rest of the family sleeps. 

When the Monitor first met Muammar in the spring of 2005, the family was living in a tent in a resettlement camp. The next time we found them in prefab temporary housing in the same camp. And that’s where we left them, in limbo, eight years ago. The following year, they moved into the threadbare house where I find them this time. The property, it turns out, belongs to Muammar’s parents; his father, a retired soldier, died in 2006. Muammar’s mother and younger sister live in the front rooms of the house. 

But this isn’t the end of the musical chairs. Muammar’s family also has a new charity-built home waiting for them in Punge Blangcut, across town. Muammar promises to take us to see it, but says the house is rented until next fall. Ira can’t wait to move in: Her brother and sister live in similar houses on the same family property. This is where Muammar and Ira lived before the tsunami, so it brings them full circle. 

After the tsunami, Ira felt afraid to go back to the neighborhood where she had narrowly escaped a watery grave, and she avoided the sandy beach that lies a few miles away. “I would stand there and feel like the waves will come in again,” she says. Now she’s over that fear, and ready to raise her family in Punge Blangcut. But when I ask Muammar about the move, his answer is more guarded. I wonder if he feels guilty about leaving his elderly mother – or just unsure about living with his in-laws. 

Either way, it seems that his post-tsunami journey is not yet over. 

I first saw Aceh from the smeared window of an overnight bus. It was 1998, and Indonesia’s dictatorship was crumbling amid a flight of capital and confidence. Our bus had stopped so that the men could pray at a roadside mosque, where a ruby-red sun rose over jungle-clad hills. I had arrived in “Mecca’s Verandah,” a staunchly Muslim corner of a multifaith nation. 

Medieval Indian and Arab traders first spread Islam to Aceh, and so to Indonesia. Starting in the 16th century, European powers jostled with Aceh’s powerful sultanate for control of pepper and other valuable commodities. In the late 19th century, the Dutch declared war on independent Aceh. Colonial Dutch troops occupied Banda Aceh in 1874, but had to fight a guerrilla war for decades, a war that helped forge Aceh’s brand of self-reliance. After Japanese troops seized control of Indonesia in 1941, the Dutch never returned. 

Yet Aceh fit uneasily into newly independent Indonesia. The first rebellion erupted in 1953 over demands for autonomy in religious affairs and education. This was tamped down by 1959 when central authorities gave Aceh a degree of self-rule. More tensions surfaced in 1971 with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and natural gas in Aceh. Resentment rose against the Suharto regime when it became clear how little of the wealth would flow to locals. In 1976, rebels in the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, staged an uprising that would turn parts of Aceh into a militarized no-travel zone. 

After President Suharto’s fall in 1998, calls for reform in Aceh grew louder. The following year, I moved to Jakarta to cover Indonesia’s chaotic transition to democracy. In November 1999, 1 million people rallied in Banda Aceh to demand a referendum on independence in the wake of East Timor’s breakaway vote. Peace negotiators managed to broker a cease-fire in 2002 between GAM and Indonesian officials. But when that truce fell apart, President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in the province in the spring of 2003. 

This was Aceh’s political plight when the earth shook shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2004. The scale of the tragedy that resulted would prove to be the deus ex machina that ended nearly three decades of war. But at the time, it felt like a colossal affront to the Acehnese, who had already suffered so much upheaval. 

That morning Juriah was in the streets of Lampulo with four of her children, talking to neighbors about the quake, when the cry went up. Water! She ran to the nearest two-story house and raced up the stairs with Reja, the youngest, in her arms. She was jostling for space on the top floor when the first wave hit. Of the 100 or so people who had been standing there, only 15 were left. Her three other children, Rahmat, Risa, and Khalid, were gone. 

A decade has passed, and so, too, has the intense trauma, but Juriah still dreams of her missing children. So does Feri, the eldest son, who was out of town when the tsunami struck. The memory of the missing is strongest during Muslim holidays, says Feri. And he sometimes has tsunami nightmares. “I’m running away from the water, trying to escape. Then I’m stranded, alone,” he tells me one afternoon, as he tends the family’s kiosk. 

Muammar felt paralyzed in the tsunami aftermath. “For the first year, it was a struggle to motivate myself to do anything. Then I realized that I couldn’t sit around all day long. I had to get moving,” he says. Like virtually every Achenese I ask about their recovery, he credits his Islamic faith, both for helping him come to terms with the immense suffering and for shining a light on the path ahead. “The tsunami was a warning, a test set by God. We should live a better life. That’s what I feel,” he says. 

Aceh still has a ways to go, both physically and psychologically. “To build a society is about more than physical reconstruction,” says Ms. Magdalena, a longtime Lampulo resident who runs a community theater with her husband. “We are a body without a soul. We need to find the soul of Lampulo, of society. It needs time to return.” 

On my final morning in Aceh, we drive Ira and her two youngest children over to the new house. We pass the city’s imposing main mosque, a new tsunami museum, and the football fields where I once witnessed dozens of GAM militiamen surrender their guns to international monitors. The clamor and chaos of the city falls away as we enter Punge Blangcut and pull up next to a simple yellow-walled house with a blue corrugated roof. To one side are two similar-sized houses, where Ira’s brother and sister live with their children. The street feels residential and well maintained. 

Ira seems thrilled to be here. She traces for me where the original family house stood, the coconut and mango trees in the front yard, and the room where she stayed with Muammar after they married in 2000. Her parents died a few years ago. So this is both a return to her roots and a new start. “This place holds sweet memories of family,” she says. “That’s what I think of now. If we always think back to the bad memories, we can’t move on.”

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