Aceh's next generation

For 6-year-old Feri, the journey from disaster to recovery has already lasted literally one-sixth of his entire life.

Before the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, Feri lived in a two-story brick-and-mortar house and enjoyed being spoiled by his three older siblings. He didn't bother much with chores, and his mother Juriah never pushed him too hard. He went to school in nearby Lampulo, surrounded by cousins and friends.

When readers first met Feri last April, he was a quiet child, often hiding behind his mother's skirt. Little wonder: He had lost his home and his older siblings to the waves. Feri's family is one of two in Indonesia that the Monitor has been following since the tragedy.

At the time, Feri's family had left a crowded relief camp and set out to rebuild their home themselves. The other family had chosen to wait in a tent for the aid programs to kick in. In the third part of this series, we examine whether the different paths to rebuilding chosen by their parents have made a difference in their young lives.

Feri's parents may have chosen to eschew the refugee camp and a handout, but the signs of outside help are visible all around his neighborhood. And he's reaping the benefits.

He sees homes being built around him by the aid group, CARE. He attends school in a barracks built by Coca-Cola, he eats food donated by the World Food Programme, and gets occasional vaccinations from UNICEF. In the afternoons, he goes to a play group organized by Save the Children as part of its Safe Play Area program.

With each new structured activity in his life, Feri's behavior improves and his former sullenness diminishes.

His schoolteacher, Siti Sofiah, says that her children - only five survivors from a class of 45 - have become harder to control after the tsunami. Some kids talk back, others have difficulty focusing on their studies. Many live in broken or single-parent families. Feri's best friend, Iqbal, lost his mother in the tsunami. Iqbal's father, like many widowers here, has since remarried, and Iqbal treats Feri's mother as a surrogate mother.

Tsunami stress affects many kids

Feri shows few outward signs of stress that many displaced children of Aceh have - including bed-wetting, clinginess, nightmares, inability to concentrate, and bouts of extreme misbehavior.

He has all the energy of a boy his age, and a gift for working on bicycles. Around the house, he does a few chores like sweeping and making the beds. But his mother, Juriah, says he has also become more naughty since the tsunami, throwing tantrums, for example, when she doesn't give him money for candy.

Most people have coping mechanisms to deal with tragedy, says Marwan Hasibuan, coordinator for psychological programs in Banda Aceh, and host of a radio talk show that helps Acehnese deal with issues of stress.

"People call us up and tell us their children are misbehaving, or wet their beds, or cling to their parents," says Mr. Hasibuan. "We tell them, these are normal reactions to abnormal situations. It's not always going to be this way. People have resources inside them, but it takes time to draw that out, and to show people they have their own ability to cope."

250 schools rebuilt

Overall, the lot of children in Indonesia's troubled Aceh Province is slowly improving after a year-long outpouring of humanitarian aid. Two-hundred and fifty schools have been built, 15,000 temporary houses have been constructed, and 60 health clinics have helped to restore medical services in relief camps around the province.

All told, the global aid donor community has pledged nearly $7.1 billion in relief aid, with $4.3 billion of those commitments in the pipeline.

Yet progress is slow. Oxfam reported last week that - from India to Indonesia - only 20 percent of the 1.8 million people left homeless on Dec. 26 will have been permanently rehoused by the first anniversary. In Aceh, only 75,000 - out of 500,000 left homeless - have moved into temporary barracks. Hundreds of thousands are living with friends and relatives, and 67,000 are in tents.

"Every family, in one way or another, has been affected by this disaster," says Kerstin Fransson, head of child protection for the aid group, Save the Children. "The social fabric has broken down."

Social networks reemerge

While Feri no longer hides behind his mother's skirt, he still lives in the same two-room shack built last spring by his father Alamsyah in a rubble-strewn area of Banda Aceh where a thriving neighborhood once stood.

Slowly, other wooden shacks are springing up nearby, many of them built by Alamsyah. In each home, there are other rugged little children, Feri's new playmates, who escaped the tsunami.

A similar community is rising up around the other family: Muammar, his wife Zohrasafita, and their two children. After several months in a tent, they moved into a sturdy new home built by the International Organization for Migration. The relief agency is steadily adding housing around them, creating new neighborhoods - and new social networks.

As this infrastructure builds up, the differences that separate the two families are disappearing. Feri's parents, Juriah and Alamsyah, quickly rebuilt their businesses from scratch. Muammar - an artist at a TV station - has been rehired by his old employer (see story, page 12).

The families now await the rebuilding of schools, the return of pediatric medical care, the reemergence of a stable neighborhood environment - things that can take years and even decades. They also are seeking a state of normalcy, something beyond the reach of money alone, something being brought back slowly by family, faith, and time.

"Imagine you are sitting with your father on a bicycle getting groceries in the market," says John Prewitt Diaz, director of psychological relief programs for the American Red Cross in New Delhi. "You see the wave, you try to go back to your house, but the wave is already covering the house. You'll never see your mother and brother again. These are the experiences that children had during the tsunami."

"The truth is, you'll never be the same after an event like this," says Mr. Diaz, "but if you build [on the inner strengths of communities and families] then maybe a community can build itself strong enough so that you can take care of each other."

Even at his tender age, Feri recognizes that his mother needs his support. His mother, Juriah, takes out a photo album quietly and opens to a page of her life that she considers closed.

The pictures, taken years ago, are of her three oldest children, Rahmat, Risa, and Khalid. She saw all three swept away by the tsunami wave as she clutched Feri and 2-year-old Reza.

"If friends come and ask about the children, we tell them [they have died], but if they don't ask, we prefer not to talk about it," says Juriah. "It will only make us sad."

Juriah says Feri understands that his older brothers and sister are dead. He occasionally has bad dreams about them. His teacher at Koran school assures him that they have gone to a better place.

During Ramadan, last month, Feri saw his mom crying as she prayed. He knew she was missing her older children, and Feri had an idea. "He said, 'Mom, why don't you rename me Rahmat, and you can rename Reza as Khalid,' " Juriah recalls. Rahmat and Khalid are Feri's older brothers, who died. "'And we can find another girl who looks like my sister Risa, and then you won't miss anyone anymore.' "

She smiles. "He cares when people around him are sad." But Juriah herself has difficulty containing her emotions, and she speaks up only when with close friends. At night, when rain seeps through the leaky tin roof onto the beds where her children are sleeping, she cries. "How much things have changed in our lives," she says.

400 orphans placed, playgrounds built

At least Juriah has her children with her. As one of the lead agencies in child protection issues, Save the Children was given the task of placing separated children and orphans into homes. Out of 2,393 children, 400 have been formally placed in homes, and 85 percent of the others are living with relations or family friends. Save the Children has also been setting up Safe Play Areas - monitored play groups run by community volunteers, in schoolrooms or centers away from the rubble where children congregate.

"In some ways, this is not a rebuilding, it's an introduction" to services that 90 percent of Acehnese have never had," says Ms. Fransson. "We hope the volunteers can be good role models, and friends for the children to talk about their feelings. And we hope that parents can rebuild their capacity to be good parents."

Religion stirs memories, brings solace

The hardscrabble, up-from-the-bootstraps life of Feri's family remains a stark contrast to the almost-normal life of 4-year-old Athafayath, and his parents Zohrasafita and Muammar. Zohrasafita (friends call her Ira) has turned the decidedly humble but solid house built by the IOM in the farming village of Tingkeum into a comfortable middle-class home. She makes money on the side, selling sarongs and scarves to neighbors, while husband Muammar pulls income from his set-designing job at the local TV station.

Always vivacious, the two children have blossomed over the past year. Fayath, as he is called, likes to enter a room with a bang, executing kung fu moves that would make Jackie Chan proud. His 18-month-old sister Tasya smiles and flirts with neighbors. Neither show signs of trauma from their harrowing escape from a busy marketplace, held tightly by Ira as a wave swept away thousands behind them.

But the trauma occasionally returns. At Ramadan, for instance, Ira broke into tears, as it finally occurred to her how many close family members she had seen last Ramadan were no longer alive.

"This year, Fayath asked me to go to her grandpa's cemetery to ask him for money for Eid," says Ira. It is common for families to give children money during the Eid feast that follows the month of Ramadan. "So one day, we went to the mass grave in Lambaro," a fishing village outside of Banda. "And I said, maybe our family members are here."

At the grave site, Fayath just stayed quiet, but Ira says he understands. He knows his cousin Pipi, a playmate before the tsunami, is dead. But he can't bear to look at photos of the family. If he does, Ira says, he becomes silent for the day.

To heal these wounds, the family has turned less to foreign aid groups and relied instead on their traditional religious beliefs. Islam has been a source of solace to many Acehnese searching for a way to deal with the upheaval in their lives.

"We just tell ourselves that anything good or bad in life comes from Allah," says Ira. "This is our life, but we can't control it. This helps us deal with it."


When the Monitor first met these two families, earlier this year, they seemed like ideal subjects to help answer the question: Does aid money do any lasting good?

For the two families, the aid efforts did provide small, scattered stepping stones on their own unique paths to a more solid footing. But both have found that the swiftest changes in their lives generally come from their own initiatives and talents.

Feri's parents, Alamsyah and Juriah, who chose out of pragmatism rather than ideology to go it alone, managed to escape from a crowded relief camp by building their own home from scraps. Rather than wait for job retraining programs, Alamsyah used his carpentry skills to make money building homes for other people and a small coffee stall of his own.

Alamsyah and Juriah are still struggling to make ends meet in the same makeshift home. But aid money is starting to make a difference in their lives. Alamsyah took out a no-interest loan for a motorcycle. His oldest surviving son, Feri, now goes to a school donated by Coca-Cola; his family receives food and medical care from the UN; and the fish market is being rebuilt by Americares. Most important, Alamsyah plans to take up an offer by CARE to finish constructing homes for anyone in the neighborhood who wants one, and who has land title.

By contrast, the family of Muammar and Ira typified the majority of people who stand in line, wait their turn, and hope that aid will help them get back on track. Their strategy paid off faster than expected. By April, they occupied a home built by the International Organization for Migration.

Jobs programs were much slower in coming, and the Monitor's second part of the series explained how Muammar spent much of his time visiting aid groups and government institutions seeking aid, while Alamsyah was earning money as a carpenter, taxi driver, and coffee vendor. Today, Muammar's condition has improved dramatically, only partially with foreign aid. He has gotten his old job back at the local TV station, but continues to receive food aid. His kids stay at home, lacking a preschool, but they receive adequate medical checkups.

In this, the final part of the series, the differences between the families have largely disappeared. Both are grateful for the aid that has come, but frustrated that it hasn't come faster. Both families recognize they are fortunate to also draw upon middle-class resources, education, and talents that others lack.

"CARE will build the homes over here, but it's too slow," says Alamsyah. "Here they have no building materials.... If I had the materials, I would do it much faster."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.