To spur rebuilding, Indonesians struggle to salvage records

As the top official in this west-coast Acehnese town, Ahmad Dadek keeps the titles for every piece of property.

Those records will be crucial in helping Meulaboh, a fishing and trading center, move toward recovery after the devastating Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami. But there's a problem. Flooding left all the town's documents in a moldering state of decay. Now, more than three months later, patience is running thin as survivors seek permits to rebuild homes and businesses. Mr. Dadek knows he is running out of time.

"It's very easy to get land in Indonesia, you just need a land title and you need the village chief to verify it," says Dadek. "But after the tsunami, the courts have been damaged, the land titles are wet, and it is very hard for me to open and read these documents in this condition."

In the meantime, tempers can flare. "Even before the tsunami, when people were alive, there were disputes over land," he says. "Now that many are dead, their relatives want the land, so maybe there will be even more disputes."

The Indonesian government brought the rebuilding process one step closer last month by unveiling its master plan for reconstruction. The tsunami is blamed for rendering some 400,000 people homeless, and the government indicated that it would allow local governments to decide the thorny issue of ownership if land records were destroyed.

In a way, Meulaboh is lucky to have records at all. Many of the government buildings in Aceh's seaside towns and villages were simply wiped out. Without records, survivors cannot rebuild, and government officials can't make easy decisions on who has the right to rebuild, particularly if there are two claimants for one piece of land. It's a problem that only threatens to become more difficult as more Acehnese become desperate to move on with their lives.

But the case of Meulaboh's soggy records may yet have a happy ending. Using UN Development Program (UNDP) funding and local labor, Meulaboh is beginning an innovative process of cleaning, disinfecting, restoring, and digitally storing all of its surviving land records, with the help of experts from Indonesia's National Archives. Starting this month, the race against time and decay begins in earnest.

"The documents were washed out, but they can be salvaged," says Andre Louhanapessy, team leader for the UNDP in Meulaboh. "The documents have been under water and they're stuck together. If you try to separate them, you would ruin them, and these may be the only proof of land ownership that a person has."

The key to saving the records is ethanol, a cheap and locally available form of alcohol used for cleaning. Under guidance from professional restorers from the National Archives, locally trained workers will begin dipping the land titles into ethanol, which will kill any bacteria that has begun to grow on the rotting paper. The records will be wind-dried and then frozen at minus 40 degrees C, and then sent to Jakarta to be restored and digitally photographed or scanned.

"We're still at the early stages of the process," says Mr. Louhanapessy, who admits he has "no idea" how long the process will take. "But through cash for work, local communities will be trained to conduct the effort, which will also provide income." Most important, he says, having clear proof of land ownership will keep this restive province relatively calm as it starts to rebuild.

A drive through Meulaboh shows how much work needs to be done. Much of the town was built on flat arable land along the coast and along the riverbanks, and out onto a long peninsula. It is those areas where the tsunami hit the hardest, killing 5,266 of the town's 61,491 residents.

At the Mesjid Nurulhuda, a sturdy concrete mosque on the peninsula, you can still see the high watermark, 10 feet up the wall, where flood waters came from two directions, trapping many local residents inside. There are holes in the mosque's 20-foot-high ceiling where desperate swimmers attempted to crawl up into the rafters until the waters receded.

From the air, it's easy to see that the tsunami reshaped the town, removing acres of beachfront property and scouring out seawater lakes where homes and businesses once stood. Because of this, Meulaboh's government has declared much of the beachfront and all of the peninsula uninhabitable. Survivors who have land titles can receive compensation for loss and buy property further inland, says Dadek.

"For getting their livelihoods started again, it may take two or three weeks, and we helped them by cleaning up the market and paying local people to clean up their homes with cash-for-work programs," says Dadek. "But for reconstruction, that may be a two- or three-year process."

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