New jobs, homes boost two Banda Aceh families

By the time the airplane touches down, an hour late, the afternoon skies have faded to a smudge of purple cloud. In the outdoor waiting area, a dozen noses press against a wire fence, their voices burbling with excitement. "That's her plane! Mom! Mom!" cries one boy.

The boy's father, Muammar Maaruf, smiles. He has brought along his wife's family to welcome her home to Aceh after a month of job training in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. Muammar is anxious to see Zuhrasafita – and he wants to update her on his search for a permanent home nearly two years after a colossal wave destroyed the foundations of their middle-class life in Banda Aceh.

Across town, in his makeshift workshop, Alamsyah bends to his task: building a cabinet for the TV. Before the tsunami upended his family's world, he made a living as a rickshaw driver, trading fish and other foodstuffs. These days, he's a handyman, repairing roofs and building bathrooms.

For both families, the past two years have brought heartache, hardship – and choices. The Monitor has followed their progress, as well as that of the huge international relief effort for Aceh, the hardest hit of the areas affected by the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami. Despite the difficulties of starting over, both families have considerable hope for the future – even as they recognize that the path ahead will continue to test them.

Inside their small wooden house supplied by a foreign charity, Alamsyah's wife, Juriah, sighs at the mention of the deadly tsunami that carried away her three eldest children. Their bodies were never recovered. In the aftermath, Alamsyah and Juriah went back to their village with their two surviving sons to stay with relatives. It took willpower to return.

"We want to live here. We have the strength now," says Juriah. "After the tsunami, we moved back to the village. But we always remembered our children.... So we decided to move back to Banda Aceh."

Rebuilding in earnest

After a sluggish start, the rebuilding of Aceh's pulverized 800-mile coastline has begun in earnest with the construction of new houses, clinics, schools, and roads. But with more than 600,000 people left homeless, their livelihoods destroyed by the giant waves that ripped apart Aceh's already creaky infrastructure, progress is inevitably spotty.

Foreign donors pledged more than $7 billion to Aceh, of which about 38 percent has flowed to the province, according to Indonesia's reconstruction agency for Aceh and the island of Nias. That adds up to a rash of construction in and around Banda Aceh, parts of which resembled a moonscape in 2004. A foreign aid- stimulated boom is trickling into the informal economy that supports many of the poor, helped by job programs for survivors.

Despite this activity, surveys of resettled households show greater dissatisfaction in Banda Aceh at the pace of rebuilding than in affected rural communities, says Bruno Dercon, a housing policy adviser to the UN Human Settlements Program. This reflects both higher expectations among urbanites and the task of reconstituting a city almost from scratch in some areas. "They're seeing the houses, but not yet the city. So many neighborhoods were destroyed, and it takes time to rebuild," he says.

Different paths to a living wage

At the outset, the two families profiled by the Monitor took opposite paths to recovery. While Muammar waited for a temporary house from an international aid organization, Alamsyah built his own shelter from scavenged materials. Muammar, an artist and TV set designer, turned to his old employer for work; Alamsyah gave up on 20-cent rickshaw rides and opened a coffee kiosk while doing odd jobs.

As the rehabilitation of Banda Aceh, a city of over 200,000 people on the northernmost tip of Sumatra, gathered pace, these differences narrowed. Both families benefited from food deliveries and job programs. Their children joined playgroups run by foreign-funded nonprofits. Alamsyah's leaky lean-to was upgraded this year to a snug tin-roofed house from Care International.

Resilience, courage, and a willingness to grasp at opportunities paid off: Both families are now earning a living wage and providing for their young children. Memories of their losses seem less raw, the nightmares less frequent. The future has a tangible heft, a measure of promise.

"The most important thing is the first step. The first step will give us the direction for the second step. If we make a mistake, then we have to go back," says Muammar.

But an undertow of insecurity remains. For Muammar, the biggest worry is finding a permanent house. Alamsyah frets about going back to market trading, and making a return on dried fish.

Then there's the risk of another tsunami. Frequent tremors in Aceh recall the last time the earth shook without mercy. Lofty plans to refashion Aceh with a coastal-protection zone caved under the pressure of people determined to return home.

From his workshop, Alamsyah can see the slanted orange rooftop of the new house rising on the site of his old home, around 90 yards away. It's one of dozens of buildings going up in his district, where the whiff of fish unloaded at the nearby port is hard to escape. Scores of brightly painted wooden boats nudge up to a Japanese-built seawall alongside a rutted road.

But Alamsyah won't be moving his family to the new house when it's finished. They plan to stay where they are, on land owned by his younger brother, who has moved elsewhere in search of work. With a promise of a permanent house on this site to be built soon, the family isn't short of shelter options.

Their reason for staying put become clearer when Alamsyah, a wiry, restless man, takes a walk through the neighborhood. On both sides of the path to his old house, chest-high weeds grow from swampy plots that lie abandoned, their owners either missing or unwilling to return. As a taped sermon echoes from the nearby mosque, Alamsyah peers inside the nearly completed house on his land.

"It's too isolated," he says. "There's nobody nearby. If I come home late at night, there's nobody for Juria."

Juria has visited the place where she last saw her three children, before they slipped under the surging seawater. She admires the house, with its peach exterior walls and wooden rafters, but is frightened to stay there alone. Alamsyah plans to rent the house or swap land with his younger brother.

Muammar's plans

"I feel happy," he says, pointing out the contours of the 12-hectare site. "It's a good location. I'm sure other displaced families would be happy here, too."

Backed by foreign donors, Indonesia has promised to rehouse everyone in Aceh who lost their homes. But finding a place to resettle the landless, including families whose plots were submerged or ruined, is among the thorniest tasks of all. Oxfam estimates that more than 25,000 families fall into this category.

As land prices continue to rise, the government has struggled with the constraints of land acquisition and the demands of the landless. Laborers want to live near the city's harbor and markets, while landowners are trying to cash in on the real-estate boom by offloading unwanted pastureland.

A year ago, Muammar became the go-to guy for a community of displaced families who needed advice on how to access aid. Now, their cluster of steel-framed wooden houses, built by the International Organization for Migration in the village of Tingkeum, has begun to empty out as families move into permanent houses.

That leaves Muammar and six other families without title casting around. In April, Muammar joined a network that collects data on landless families and petitions the government's land-acquisition program. They want the government to buy the land behind the banana grove and build homes for 200 families.

The clock is ticking. The two-year lease on the land in Tingkeum expires in April, and Muammar worries that the subdivision plan is bogged down in Indonesia's notorious bureaucracy. "I'm afraid the deal might collapse.... I think nobody cares about the people who don't have land. We're the unwanted stepchildren," he says softly.

Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the IOM, says Tingkeum and other temporary camps may need to negotiate with landowners to extend their stay. "The vast majority of families living in Tingkeum have received permanent homes or are in the process of getting them. The situation is repeated in upwards of 80 percent of the transitional communities that we've built," he says.

Not knowing where they will live next year seems like a burden for the family. But spend time with Zuhrasafita, whose friends call her Ira, and her two young children – son Athafayath and daughter Taysa – and her enthusiasm tells you otherwise.

For Ira, the tsunami had a silver lining: a new career as a kindergarten teacher. After starting this year at a daycare center in Tingkeum, she moved to a kindergarten run by a local educational nonprofit, which sent her to Jakarta for training in child development. More than 700 schools have been rebuilt in Aceh and Nias out of 1,100 schools that were damaged.

Ira dreams of turning a future house into a child-friendly space where kids can drop by. "I don't want to have a big or luxurious house, but a comfortable house," she says.

Before she married, Ira studied at secretarial college. Marriage and motherhood put her career on hold, and teaching has infused Ira with a zest for life. "My life now, compared to before the tsunami, is better. I am happier and my life is more beautiful, wonderful, and colorful," she says.

Among the children of both families there are few outward signs of the upheavals in their lives. Juria says that Feri, her eldest son, no longer insists on sleeping with his parents and rarely suffers nightmares. His teachers say he is better behaved, an exuberant if naughty boy.

Tempering grief

Adults grapple with their own grief. For Juria, pining for her dead children is checked by work to supplement her husband's efforts. She wonders if she could bear another child, to try for a daughter. But first, she wants a permanent house. "I like a lot of activities. If I stay home, I start to remember the tsunami, so I try to stay busy," she says.

On the wall of Muammar's bedroom hangs a canvas. A menacing wave looms over a thicket of gray houses. He paints at night when he can't sleep, and has been working on the canvas for three months. This is his third version. "I started painting, and this just appeared in my mind," he says. "It's not for exhibition. It's for me."

On a recent morning, his son perched on the front of Muammar's motorcycle, clutching a red King Kong schoolbag. It was first day back at kindergarten after an absence that spanned Ira's time in Jakarta. Muammar wanted to drop off his son and take Ira to her school before continuing to the TV station where he works. Taysa was staying with a neighbor until Muammar returned at lunch time.

The motorbike threaded through the traffic, past emerald-green rice fields. At school, Athafayath raced to the merry-go-round while Ira went to speak to teachers. Muammar stood quietly, watching his son.

Did he make the right choices on the road to recovery? Yes, he nods.

"We have a happy family life," he says. "We created this happiness in the tent (last year). Now we have it in our current house. We can always bring this happiness, wherever we go."

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