Aceh moving slowly forward

The earth shook, the sea swelled and lives were destroyed—tens of thousands of them.

The media arrived even before the emergency services. The emergency services did a good job because, contrary to early fears, no major diseases took hold. The media also did a good job because the story got out and the aid poured in—billions of dollars’ worth—from distant communities, from NGOs and from governments.

Along with the aid dollars, hundreds of personnel arrived—sanitation experts, construction engineers, risk assessors, communications consultants, community workers, counsellors and aid advisers.

Mountains of debris were bulldozed into landfill. Bodies were recovered and buried, temporary shelters mushroomed and the bewildered survivors did—and are still doing—what survivors everywhere do: they struggle to rebuild their lives.

So where is it all at now, nearly 18 months down the track? According to Banda Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation (BRR), only 20,000 houses out of a required 120,000 have been built. Most of the survivors are still living in temporary accommodation. This has been the focus of much criticism. Why haven’t more people been relocated into permanent rather than temporary housing?

Allegations of corruption don’t help, and the fact that one leading aid agency has recently suspended operations pending an inquiry into missing funds does little to enhance faith in the reconstruction process.

But red tape and corruption aside, there is a very credible reason why permanent housing is taking so long. The fact is that the land needs to be remapped. The devastation altered the topography and destroyed the landmarks along with many of the land records. Because so many people perished, so too did much of the memory of the land. Survivors have difficulty stating exactly where their houses were, and nobody wants to rebuild on land that may be contested later on.

Land-mapping can be painstakingly slow. It certainly isn’t a sexy media story, yet it is essential to the reconstruction process and it does explain, in part, why things take so long.

 ‘The community land mapping project provides details of where the village house sites are,’ said Nick Mawdsley, governance adviser to the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Rehabilitation and Development (AIPRD). ‘This means that survivors can rebuild knowing that their location will not be in dispute. It also means that the Indonesian National Land Agency can then issue a certificate of ownership to each mapped household.’

So far about 23,000 parcels of land have been mapped in 172 villages. Based on these maps, Indonesian planning authorities have issued titles to about 5000 plots of land in Aceh Besar district and the city of Banda Aceh. One hundred and twenty-nine community land-mappers have been trained and employed in this process.

I journeyed with Mawdsley and his team of mapmakers to a handover ceremony at Lhoong subdistrict, about 90 minutes’ drive from Banda Aceh, through the mountains and back down the coast. Twenty-eight village heads gathered to receive their maps and accompanying data. Each village head also received a large framed map for public display.

It was there that I met Mahyuddin, head of Kruang village, where only 136 of the 508 residents survived. After the ceremony I travelled with Mahyuddin back to his village, where he showed me the plans for reconstruction. ‘We had a lot of discussions among our community and with the mapping people,’ he said. ‘We are keen to move forward and these maps will help us with our future plans.’

The words moving forward are echoed throughout the region. In the temporary barracks housing some of survivors from Kahju village there’s a colourful billboard erected by the Indonesian Red Cross and Red Crescent. Move Forward Aceh, it says.

Only 2600 of Kahju’s 13,000 people survived. ‘We will move forward because our spirit is strong,’ said Nadia, a schoolteacher who also works as a community cadre in Kahju village. ‘My role is to motivate survivors and to help them meet their needs.’

The cadres are volunteers, selected by the survivors to work alongside a village facilitator employed by the governance program.

Edwar, a young agricultural science graduate, is one of the facilitators for Kahju village. He lost his twin brother, his parents and his house in the tsunami.

‘People need activity to survive,’ he said. ‘It’s important that they don’t just sit about and wallow in their grief. That is why the mapping is good. Now we know who owns what, we can begin building more permanent housing.’

The contours of post-disaster development are never easy. In a region blighted by war, poverty and fragile governance, they can be particularly complex. But there are signs that people are moving forward.

On my final day in the province I saw a truckload of exuberant graduates in academic gowns driving around Banda Aceh. They happened to be the first batch of engineering graduates from UNSYIAH University since the tsunami, and no doubt many of them will be snapped up in the rebuilding of their communities. I had to move quickly to photograph the truck. It was moving at a cracking pace. 

Peter Davis is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.



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