Each morning they cross the mud-caked plain to the broken shells of their old houses, collecting scrap wood and iron as they go. Some are building rough shelters on their land; others are still clearing away debris. Those unable to do either mark out their plot with a sign: This land has an owner.
Two and a half months on, Aceh's tsunami survivors just want to go home.
Their zeal to rebuild puts them on a collision course with the Indonesian government's plan for a coastal exclusion zone up to 2 kilometers inland, or just over a mile. Fishermen are among those that have publicly opposed the zoning plan, part of a comprehensive reconstruction blueprint due to be released on March 26. International donors who raised billions of dollars for tsunami aid are waiting for the plan, which will also focus on job creation, infrastructure, and protection for vulnerable survivors.
"Our biggest challenge is how to convince the community to accept the master plan. Once we get consensus then we can move faster," says Alwi Shihab, coordinating minister for public welfare.
Asked if the government would evict Acehnese who rebuild inside an exclusion zone, Mr. Shihab urges restraint. "It's better to be patient until the community decides [on zoning]. It's too sensitive to stop them [rebuilding], but we tell them there may be consequences," he says.
Aid workers say those who return to their coastal land are taking a gamble, but are likely to win sympathy from local officials, who are trying to put their own stamp on reconstruction. In practice, they say, Jakarta's master plan may turn out to be guidelines, not binding edicts.
Regardless of Jakarta's plans, some of the estimated 400,000 Indonesians who lost their homes are reclaiming land with no intention of turning back.
Together with 14 other survivors from his fishing community, Jul Fianda now lives in a borrowed tent pitched on the remains of a beachfront warehouse. There is no fresh water and irregular food donations, but Jul says he can't live in a refugee camp.
"This is our home. We prefer living here. We don't need anyone's permission," he says. It's not exactly his home: That now lies several feet underwater, as do thousands of other houses reclaimed by the ocean.
Some communities have begun pooling resources to rebuild with help from private charities. One farming village outside Banda Aceh plans to start with 10 houses for its neediest families using building materials supplied by Oxfam, a British aid organization. Workers will be paid for their labor and taught carpentry skills.
"The Indonesian government can't afford to pay for all the houses needed [in Aceh], so we must rely on international help," says H.M. Fadrin, a village elder. Other aid agencies are supplying prefab houses to fill the gap before permanent homes arrive.
Not everyone has begun to rebuild. In the neighboring village young men pick listlessly through the piles of splintered wood and cracked pipes that once was a community of 3,000 people. These survivors say they also want to rebuild their homes but have no choice but to move to the wooden barracks being built nearby, one of over 800 built or under construction in Aceh.
Aid groups and some UN officials are critical of Indonesia's eagerness to resettle families in the barracks, which resemble traditional longhouses raised on wooden stilts with each family living in a 3-foot-by-5-foot room.
The government says families will have to stay for up to two years in these temporary settlements while new homes are built. Health workers warn that communal housing with poor sanitation increase the risk of disease.
"There is a certain amount of people who will require [temporary housing], but I don't think it's the majority and I don't think it should be the only option," says Antonella Vitale, an adviser to the United Nations Development Program.
The building of barracks also troubles local activists wary of military meddling in Aceh, where a separatist insurgency has raged since 1976. Some are located beside military camps and the army has helped with their construction.
"This is a military idea to build barracks. They want to control the Acehnese people," says Akhiruddin Mahjuddin, a prominent social activist.
In communities where the tsunami uprooted everything and everyone, there are hard choices ahead over what to rebuild. In Calang, a peninsular town that lost more than 6,000 of its 7,300 people, soldiers and local laborers are building government offices on cleared land by the shore. But survivors camped on the overlooking hill are too scared to return to this land that is surrounded by the gently lapping ocean. Aid workers say the community lacks effective leadership, as most of its elders died in the disaster.
Back from the shore, a man in ragged clothes hammers together roughly hewn planks on a tiny plot of land. His wife and two children were swept away by the waves, and his only wish now is to build a shelter and live here, to escape his suffocating tent. Asked about his future, a possible livelihood, he stares speechless at the shore. Eventually he goes back to his hammering, one plank at a time.