In Aceh, building peace amid building pains

The province must continue post-tsunami reconstruction while delivering on last year's peace accord, which was aimed at ending three decades of separatist fighting.

Mahfud pulls on his black gumboots and stomps along the exposed riverbed to where a wheezing mechanical digger is scooping out gravel and sand. On the riverbank, two yellow trucks wait in the drizzling rain to collect their loads, destined for Aceh.

On an average day, says Mahfud, a rebel soldier- turned-businessman, over 100 trucks make the 1-hour run to Banda Aceh. He's ploughed $11,000 into his extraction business since last November, and is starting to see a return on his investment.

"I'm happy to be in business, and to be making money," he says.

Two years after the foundations of Aceh were shaken to the core by an undersea earthquake, then pummeled by an unforgiving wave, the province is confronting dual demands: to rebuild homes and roads while delivering on the promise of a peace accord signed last year after three decades of separatist fighting.

That accord is already delivering tangible political rewards to the rebels, just as many residents are seeing new homes rise in washed-away neighborhoods. Maintaining momentum on both fronts is essential, aid workers say, warning that to deal with tsunami relief in isolation is to ignore the complexities of reconstruction in a province torn by bitter fighting fueled by competition for rich natural resources.

"There is a convergence between tsunami recovery and conflict recovery.... (Without) a sustainable peace in Aceh, if you consider the aid as an investment in its future, you will not get a good return on your investment. It's also a question of equity, having some balance. There are victims of both tragedies," says Eric Morris, the UN's recovery coordinator for Aceh.

In this city of 200,000 people, billions of aid dollars have begot a somewhat chaotic approach as hundreds of private and intergovernmental organizations have marked out their territory.

Acehnese overwhelmingly seem to welcome the foreign-aid presence. Stricken communities are seeing the world's pledges of support turn into new schools, houses, hospitals, and mosques, with the pace of rebuilding picking up considerably in the past year. Along Aceh's coastline and offshore island, some 50,000 permanent houses have gone up over the past two years – the majority built this year.

But recovery has hit roadblocks – substandard housing, disputes over land rights, and uneven job creation among them. Angry residents have protested against the Indonesian government's reconstruction agency, known as BRR, which has faced accusations of graft and incompetence.

The Dec. 26, 2004, quake also shook Aceh's political foundations. By the following summer, leaders of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, signed a landmark peace accord in Finland. Irwandi Yusuf, a GAM negotiator and former political prisoner who escaped from jail when the tsunami struck, is set to become Aceh's next governor after winning a peaceful Dec. 11 ballot, based on an initial count. Final results are expected Jan 2.

But even as Acehnese embrace the peace process, there are concerns over the rising disparity between the rehabilitated coastline and villages untouched by the waves. Most worrying, say aid workers, is the complaint that civilians who have suffered from the long conflict are being bypassed by the international largesse, creating a groundswell of discontent that could hobble the broader goal of a peaceful, prosperous Aceh.

"At first, our brothers in the highlands said our brothers in the tsunami zone should be helped," says Said Fauzan Baabud, a program officer at the UN Development Program. "But what about the people whose houses were burned down, who lost their fields – is there any assistance for them? We're afraid there will be jealousy. We hear complaints from the conflict communities."

The mobilization of international support for Aceh after the tsunami was a catalyst in the peace talks, as donors quickly realized that the conflict was harming recovery efforts. The scale of the devastation also sapped the fighting spirit of the two sides. In contrast, Sri Lanka slid back into civil war despite efforts to use tsunami aid as a bridge between the government and ethnic Tamil rebels.

A recent survey by Indonesia's Ministry of Home Affairs and the World Bank in more than 5,000 villages found that more Acehnese were homeless as a result of violence than the tsunami. While 82 percent of tsunami survivors had since returned home, only 65 percent of those displaced by conflict had done so, leading respondents to conclude that tsunami victims fared better.

Political stability is crucial to Aceh's economic future. Economists are already warning of a bursting of the foreign-aid bubble and the need to make the leap from charity handouts to sustainable jobs, particularly in the key agriculture and fishing sectors. Aid agencies want more micro-credit efforts to enhance livelihood programs and spur entrepreneurship.

Still, with more than $2 billion pumped into the economy by foreign donors in 2006, there's plenty of money to be made.

Back in his village, Mahfud says his gravel business employs 15 people, mostly former comrades-in-arms. He's uninterested in politics and the infighting among ex-rebels vying for office. But he's quick to explain how his profits are shared with the community, with each truckload incurring a royalty. The proceeds have gone to rebuild the local mosque.

Salim Burhan, the village chief, praises Mahfud for his contributions and for employing demobilized fighters. "This is why conflict happens, because of a lack of economic opportunities. Combatants need jobs," he says.

The muscular young men laboring on the riverbed are in the minority, though. Most of the 3,000 GAM fighters who surrendered their weapons last year to peace monitors are unemployed, and donor-backed reintegration has bogged down in squabbles over who gets priority, and how money is disbursed. Mahfud says he pooled money from relatives to start his business instead of waiting for payouts.

Amid reports of increased crime and extortion in former GAM strongholds, observers warn that idle fighters must be helped. "We had a year honeymoon (after the peace deal), but this is a time bomb," says a foreign observer.

But given the devastation, most humanitarian agencies are focused on the revival of Aceh's coastline. If the first year of rebuilding was marked by sluggish progress, the second year has seen a blossoming of new construction as well as much-needed infrastructure spending. According to BRR, 700 miles of roads have been built or repaired, 121 bridges fixed, and 11 ferry terminals built or in progress.

On coastal land, pastel-colored concrete houses have mushroomed, tagged by the name of their donor. But the quality of construction varies greatly, as does the competency of the 100 or more organizations who have offered to build permanent homes. Several international agencies – Oxfam, Care, and Save the Children among them – have had to tear down substandard houses this year, while others have struggled to award contracts.

Standing outside her apple-green house in Leupung, a west-coast fishing village, Salbiah points to the missing hinges on her exterior windows. That's not all: The contractors didn't build a bathroom, and she had to pay to install sanitation pipes, she claims. Salbiah, a widow with three children at home, blames the UN Human Settlements Program for not watching the contractors more closely. "If I knew where their office was, I would go and complain to them," she says.

Officials at the UN Human Settlements Program concede that their program ran into difficulties in Leupung, but say that Salbiah's community helped to decide their own housing design, and had agreed not to add a bathroom in the first phase due to budget constraints. The program was later changed.

Nice houses – but they're empty

Shoddy workmanship and cost-cutting are not the only housing issues. Out by the picture-perfect beach at Lampuuk, near a golf course, the Turkish Red Cross has erected hundreds of roomy houses with tiled bathrooms that have won praise for their quality.

With a unit cost of $10,000, more than double the $4,000 originally recommended by BRR, the Turkish houses are the talk of the town.

They're also mostly empty. Few public services exist in the area, and there are no jobs for miles around. Aid workers describe it as the three Ws – water, work, and wives (women and children died in greater numbers in the tsunami, leaving many widowers).

"Aceh is unprecedented in history, because it's an extremely well-funded (relief) program and there's an extremely large number of organizations that have never done housing before. It's a volatile mix," says Bruno Dercon, housing policy adviser to the UN Human Settlements Program.

There's also volatility, of a different kind, on Aceh's west-coast highway, a lifeline for reconstruction aid. The road is a patchwork of bumpy tarmac, unpaved dirt, and wobbly bridges, and will eventually be replaced by a new US-funded highway. Until that arrives, all traffic must pass through sections that are subject to frequent blockades by angry locals who double as toll collectors.

On one uphill section, protesters have dug a mud barrier to divert vehicles from the paved road onto a rutted dirt path. At a nearby roadblock, sullen young men ask for "voluntary contributions" of 10 cents from passing cars. A hand-painted sign reads "Run out of patience."

Saiful, one of the collectors, explains that the community is angry at not being compensated for the use of its land, and wants the government to buy or lease the 3-kilometer stretch that passes through their village. Before the tsunami, the road snaked along the nearby coastline, until the waters washed it away. Indonesian Army engineers then punched a road along a path through their village above the beach.

Asked if he planned to detain the protesters, Mustari, deputy police chief of the subdistrict, sighs. "We took them before to the mayor so they could talk directly. He promised to fix it. But nothing happened," he says. "It's their right to protest."

Back in Banda Aceh, the sizzling economy shows no sign of slowing. At the Honda dealership, sales manager Saifullah can't get enough new motorbikes to meet demand, which almost doubled last year to 7,200 units. Honda has added two more city showrooms since the tsunami, and beefed up its presence in rural districts. "We had a good business after the tsunami. People need motorbikes," he says.

Sustaining that boom will require both prudent governance and a pickup in private investment, say economists. Under the peace accord, Aceh will receive a much greater share of tax receipts from Jakarta as well as a larger share of its natural-resource output. But with local government enfeebled by long periods of military rule as well as the tsunami, it may prove difficult to put that money to proper use. Investors are likely to remain cautious while GAM transforms itself into a political party ahead of local and national elections in 2009.

Such calculations seems far away, though, from the tiled front porch where Zulkifar Syamsuddin sits playing with his 4-month-old son.

Unlike most survivors in his neighborhood, near the fishing port of Lampulo, he has been able to move back to his original house, after repairing the damage. He's back at work at the port as a government inspector, and is tickled by the arrival of his first child.

From his porch, Mr. Zulkifar can see the workman finishing a new primary school donated by Coca-Cola that will open next month. Just past the school is a spacious clinic sponsored by Honda. Several new houses are under construction.

The love boat

But it's the building two doors away that is the most eye-catching. Atop a ruined house sits a 60-ft. wooden boat, one of scores that were carried inland by the tsunami.

Two years ago, Zulkifar climbed from a second-floor balcony into the boat to escape the rising waters, together with 56 other terrified men, women, and children. "Everywhere was emptiness, only water. It was difficult to think straight. So we just prayed," he recalls.

After the tragedy, Zulkifar proposed to his girlfriend, Nurhayadi, and they married in September. But she balked at his suggestion to hold the reception inside the stranded boat. So their wedding photos show them standing in front of its hulking presence, but at a distance.

Zulkifar says he's not fixated on the past, as he bounces his baby on his knee. "If we think of our sadness, we'll feel sad. We have to leave the sadness behind and think of the future," he says.

A tsunami's impact

Human Toll

Indonesia: 167,736 people killed or missing

Sri Lanka: 35,322 killed

India: 18,045 killed or missing

Thailand: 8,212 killed

Somalia: 289 killed or missing

Maldives: 108 killed

Malaysia: 75 killed or missing

Burma (Myanmar): 61 killed

Tanzania: 13 killed

Seychelles, Bangladesh: 2 killed

Kenya: 1 killed

Other costs

Number of people who lost livelihood: 1.5 million

Number of people displaced: 2.1 million

Ratio of women and children killed to men killed: 3:1

Total damages: $10.73 billion

Source: Reuters and UN Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery

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