Five years on: Aceh’s clean slate

26 December 2009
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IT’S FRIDAY in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, and the muezzin is sounding the midday call to prayer, the most important of the week. Governor Irwandi Yusuf is running late, but making excellent time thanks to his security detail ahead, blaring horns and sirens to scythe through the morass of motorbikes clogging the streets around the city’s grand mosque. Despite the dark tints on the windows of his self-driven Jeep Wrangler, Irwandi, travelling in the middle of the convoy, draws stares of recognition. To Aceh’s 4 million inhabitants, the shiny black tank is a widely recognised symbol of their popular governor, and his idiosyncratic, hands-on approach. To Irwandi, the reverse holds true.

"The Acehnese people are – how do you say – all-terrain vehicles," he laughs. "They’re off-roaders."

He’s referring to the resilience the Acehnese have displayed in the face of overwhelming recent trials; namely, the apocalyptic tsunami – the most destructive in history – which ravaged the province five years ago yesterday. The wave killed up to 170,000 in Aceh, making a blank slate of the landscape and compounding the miseries of what was already one of the world’s more abject regions.

Before the tsunami, Aceh was a forgotten backwater, stifled for decades under repressive military control. Society was fractured, brutalised and isolated from the rest of the world as the result of a vicious conflict between separatists and the Indonesian government, which had seethed for 29 years, at the cost of 15,000, mostly civilian, lives.

Then, on the morning of Boxing Day, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake – the fourth-largest in a century – struck underwater off the Acehnese coast, jolting a 1200km expanse of ocean floor and shaking the entire planet up to a centimetre. The blast of energy unleashed by the quake was equivalent to 550m Hiroshimas, and created a wall of water three storeys high, which travelled a fifth of the way across the earth at speeds of up to 600km/h. Truly international in scope, the disaster claimed more than 228,000 lives, affected 2.5 million others, and caused close to US$10b worth of damage in 14 countries. By far the highest price was paid by Aceh, the first and worst affected, where more people died than in all other countries combined.
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In Banda Aceh, the capital, nearly a third of the population was simply washed away. New Zealander Bob McKerrow, the head of Indonesia’s Red Cross, was doing tsunami relief work in the Maldives when bodies with Indonesian identity papers surfaced on the beach, 4500km across the Indian Ocean.

The aerial images, of kilometres of formerly populous coastland reduced to an immense stretch of swamp and rubble, were unequivocal. The response, as they were beamed into Western homes where families had gathered for Christmas, was unprecedented. A total of US$13.5 billion in aid was pledged to the global tsunami relief effort, including a record-breaking US$5.5 billion from ordinary citizens; nearly half of the total was allocated to Aceh.

The magnitude of the destruction required the relief effort to be conducted on what was virtually a war footing. More than 16,000 foreign personnel entered the province, bringing ships, aircraft, a floating hospital. In many places, military forces had to make amphibious landings, then bulldoze roads in order to reach stricken communities in a state of bewilderment and profound grief.

"The tsunami was something outside our imagination", says Tabrani Yunis, a 41-year-old community activist and tsunami survivor who, after the initial earthquake that morning left his home and family unscathed, had kissed his wife Salminar, eight-year-old son and four-year-old daughter goodbye, and set off on business to another part of the province. He rushed back half an hour later as panicked news of the deadly tide spread through the city, and found his low-lying neighbourhood had been taken by the ocean, his family and home with it.

Like many survivors in the devoutly Muslim province – filthy, dazed, robbed of everything they had – he sheltered for a time in the city’s mosques, among the few surviving structures in the destruction zone. But the cries of children there, tormenting reminders of his own losses, drove him out to sleep under a raincoat in a park. For weeks afterwards, he wandered hopelessly, searching for news of his family, before taking work as a translator for foreign media crews in order to travel around the province and, he hoped, find a lead. He was barely able to function. "Walking and crying, walking and crying," he remembers. "I was like a crazy person."

That Yunis was but one among hundreds of thousands of similar tales gives some indication of the enormity of the challenge faced by the relief operation, and why the initial prognosis of its architects was bleak. Even when the heavy lifting of the physical reconstruction – a mammoth task of rebuilding homes, schools, roads, hospitals, businesses – was completed, survivors were expected to face a raft of problems caused by the psychological trauma, social breakdown and economic collapse the disaster brought about. There were strongly founded fears of a hopeless, dispirited underclass developing in the tent cities and barracks set up to house the 400,000 displaced: a lost generation of tsunami orphans, vulnerable to child trafficking, domestic abuse, drug dependency and criminality.

Remarkably, five years on, virtually none of this has transpired. "The people of Aceh have recovered," says Irwandi. "They are not traumatised."

Life in Aceh is better than anyone remembers it being. Nearly all of the homeless have been re-housed; many of the widowed, remarried. The war has ended, and the scars of the ordeal, in both the landscape and the people, are barely visible.

Zubedy Koteng, head of Unicef’s child protection programme in Aceh, arrived in the province 10 days after the tsunami struck, and has monitored the wellbeing of local children since. "I don’t see any psychological effects from the tsunami. I just don’t see it anywhere," he says. "For me, it’s amazing."

THE SCALE of the upheaval which has taken place in Aceh is evident in Irwandi’s VIP reception as he sweeps into the grounds of the mosque, bustling with hundreds of faithful in their Friday best. Five years ago, Irwandi, then a separatist guerrilla, was a prisoner of war, who escaped the rising floodwaters in prison, among 40 other of 278 inmates to do so, only by punching a hole through a ceiling and clinging to the roof for dear life.

Today, as a result of a peace accord struck in the political space created by the disaster, the one-time secessionist is not only a free man, but leader of a province which boasts better infrastructure, a more open society and a degree of autonomy from Jakarta that was unimaginable during the strangling years of military rule. "We have more now than what we had before the tsunami – much more," he says.

Despite the increasingly strident interpretations of sharia which have been implemented in recent years (in September, outgoing provincial lawmakers approved legislation allowing for adulterers to be stoned to death, although Irwandi, a progressive, has not ratified the law), Aceh has become in many ways a more progressive society.

Coffee houses – the main social hub and previously an exclusively male domain – are now open to women, the more privileged of whom avail themselves of wi-fi connections to engage with the outside world on their laptops. Yunis, once forced to conduct his women’s rights work underground – placing the shoes of people attending his meetings in a cupboard, rather than on the doorstep, to avoid police detection – now operates with the blessing of authorities.

Under Irwandi’s conservation-minded leadership, Aceh has banned logging, and implemented a carbon credit scheme to protect the province’s jeopardised forests, which, it is hoped, will prove a major drawcard to the tourists being eyed as a new income stream. (The Sumatran rainforest, locals boast, is the only place in the world where all the characters of Kipling’s Jungle Book can be found in their natural habitat.) The province that was largely closed off to outsiders for nearly 30 years is implementing a visa-on-arrival programme at its international airport, and is described by the Lonely Planet as "the next best spot".

David Shirley, a New Zealander who manages Banda Aceh’s only four-star hotel and is conducting academic research into the dynamics of developing tourism in a sharia territory, sees significant potential to grow the industry beyond the sphere of disaster tourism.

Many of those who visit the province are drawn by curiosity over its recent history, although evidence of the ordeal is not immediately apparent. A nascent tourist trail has developed: at the landmark site of a 2600-tonne ship, dumped by the wave in the middle of a village 5km inland, a migrant from Bali sells "I heart Aceh" T-shirts. But at Lhok Nga, the "ground zero" where thousands were swept to their deaths, the non-descript mass gravesite is easily missed amidst the more incongruous sights of a golf course, cows on the beach and the Western surfer dudes who have been appearing in increasing numbers since word got out that the tsunami zone has gnarly breaks.

The wounds on the people are similarly difficult to discern. The "all terrain" Acehnese are a redoubtable warrior people, famous equally for their fierce resistance to outsiders, and devotion to the Islamic faith. Their swift psychological recovery is generally attributed to both. Says McKerrow: "Chalk it up to a quarter century of bloodshed. Their coping mechanism was operating at a high level when the tsunami occurred. They recovered much quicker than people who hadn’t been exposed to blood and guts and death for that period of time."

Faith has been an essential crutch. The disaster was widely construed as an act of God, and had to be accepted on those terms. In contrast, the civil war, the work of men, left wounds that still fester.

"Islam gives me strength, something to hold on to," says Sri Misra, Yunis’ 41-year-old colleague, who lost all her family – a husband, sister, and nephew – in the disaster. "If I didn’t have religion I would go crazy. I would ask why my husband and family were taken away. But I know it’s the will of God."

Yunis, who, like virtually everyone in Aceh, has had no access to counseling or therapy throughout his ordeal, says he simply had to endure. There was no alternative.

"Something came in my mind that day. Oh my god. You are starting alone again," he says. "But then I realised, no: you haven’t lost everything. You still have friends, some family. A job. You aren’t starting from zero."

Yunis has remarried and is a father again. He is a respected community leader; he travels internationally; he does not have the air of a haunted or broken man. It is only when he pulls out a picture of his two lost children on his mobile phone, that he chokes up and is unable to speak. When he recovers, he explains that he still becomes emotional when he is around children. The sight of the ocean spooks him.

AT A time when the international community is redoubling its efforts to address climate change, among other daunting humanitarian concerns, the modern miracle of Aceh’s recovery is an encouraging sign of what can be achieved when political will, resources and coordination align.

"They moved mountains," says McKerrow, who has been involved in the Tsunami Legacy project, an international review of the lessons learned from the disaster, which confirmed the Indonesian approach as the most effective of myriad responses.

A Dunedinite who has spent 38 years in the international aid sector, McKerrow says the response in Aceh was the largest and most successful he has seen. Where other countries closed ranks and determined to handle the situation on their own, Indonesia swallowed its pride and opened its borders, accepting foreign expertise where it acknowledged deficiencies.

"The other affected governments didn’t lift their game above a mediocre level," says McKerrow. "Leadership is about looking at the horizon beyond the horizon. Other countries `managed’ their response, whereas Indonesia had inspired leadership."

Crucial to its success was Jakarta’s creation, three months after the disaster, of the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR). Established to coordinate a strategic and accountable response, with gaps identified and replications avoided, the BRR was staffed with some of the country’s finest, cherry-picked technocratic talent. Recently elected and eager to establish a reputation as a deliverer of good governance, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appointed a respected and unimpeachable academic to direct the organisation, and gave him the mandate to "build back better" by reforming social institutions stunted by decades of conflict.

"He told [the director]: `You reform Indonesia from Aceh, and I’ll reform Indonesia from Jakarta’," says McKerrow. "That was the critical moment."

The establishment of the BRR helped curb the orgy of flag-planting which prevailed in the early months, as nearly 500 NGOs and charitable organisations swarmed into Aceh. Groups from all over the world wanted to be seen to play their part in the recovery from the great disaster of the age; many were relatively inexperienced players, swollen to an unfamiliar size and importance by the unprecedented level of public donations they received. Even the Scientologists got in on the action, with 200 of L. Ron Hubbard’s disciples travelling to Aceh to administer "spiritual first aid".

Those early "Klondike days" saw a number of hasty, ill-advised projects, as NGOs, responding partly to the implicit imperative to compete for funds and prestige, rushed to demonstrate to their home publics that they were taking action.

"You’d have an organisation come in; they’ve got staff on the ground, they’ve got their home media there for a few days, and they just want to build some f—— houses," says McKerrow. "They don’t care about land titles, and they build them in the wrong place." A number of developments were subsequently torn down in these circumstances, an instructive lesson that it was worthwhile doing things properly, even if that meant taking a little longer.

Throughout the response, the NGOs had more money than they’d seen before; more money, literally, than some of them knew what to do with. Greatly expanded budgets and capacities saw some organisations make eyebrow-raising forays into spheres in which they had no track record (civil engineering projects), or which seemed less than essential (a lifeguard training project).

One veteran humanitarian worker recalls the "glorious moment" when USAid knocked on his organisation’s door with unsolicited funding for a project. "I was delighted to tell them, and all their conditions, to f— off," he crows. "We didn’t need them."

Today, as he and his colleagues grapple with aid shortfalls and public indifference to less spectacular natural disasters, they look back wistfully at the salad days of the tsunami. "It really was the disaster of a lifetime," says one.

There were criticisms of the response: that replacement houses were of an inadequate standard, or the wait for them was too long; that people who should have been entitled to homes missed out; that, in one of Indonesia’s more impoverished regions, too little focus was given to economic development.

Claims of rorts involving contractors engaged in the reconstruction were not uncommon, although it is generally accepted that BRR, established with an internal anti-corruption unit, is a clean institution, and levels of graft were low by Indonesian standards.

Given the overall scale of the disaster, says McKerrow, the relief and reconstruction of Aceh can only be viewed a success. "For every 100 very good things that were done, there were maybe five to eight f—-ups," he considers. "That’s not too bad."

THE TSUNAMI swept away everything: the precious and irreplaceable, but also some things the Acehnese needed rid of.

"A lot of people you talk to see the tsunami as Allah’s way of ending the conflict," says Luke Swainson, a 26-year-old from Palmerston North who has been working in Aceh’s NGO sector for three years.

The disaster’s one great silver lining was in creating a political opening for peace. The two sides could barely continue to skirmish while the world poured its energies into rebuilding the province; besides, the suffering endured in the tragedy had largely sapped the will to fight. Eight months after the tsunami, an historic peace agreement ending decades of conflict was signed between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Helsinki.

Over a meal at his home, Irwandi – the GAM’s former counterintelligence head, who, after Helsinki, renounced his separatist agenda, and won a landslide victory in Aceh’s first democratic election in 30 years – explains that his commitment to the cause began when he read a history book as an eight-year-old.

"Maybe the first book I read was the wrong book, according to Jakarta," he laughs.

Aceh’s claim to independence is based on its long history as a sovereign entity, and a more recent perception that the province’s rich natural resources were being plundered by central government for the benefit of neighbouring Javanese. For Irwandi, these convictions hardened during periods of intense conflict, months when "you could see dead bodies almost every day: in the ditch, on the street," recalls the 49 year-old. "When you see that, it starts something crawling in your brain."

After completing a Masters degree in veterinary studies in the United States, Irwandi self-funded a stint of guerrilla training in an undisclosed Latin American country, before returning home to work in his field of study. For years, he led a double life, disappearing for months at a stretch to fight the Indonesian military. For a time, he joined the Red Cross to study humanitarian law, realising his soldiers would need to abide by the Geneva Conventions if they were to attain international sympathy and respect.

Today, he describes relations with Jakarta as "good; very cautiously good". It is inherently a relationship of tension.

"Indonesia," says Irwandi, "is a crooked rope, a rope that’s not straight yet."

At its extremities: an autonomous Aceh in the west; the restive Papua in the east.

"If you pull at both ends, it will be straight," he says. "If you pull too strong, the ends will be severed."

Peace has been won, but it is a delicate thing. Former rebels, he says, are "swallowing their disappointment" at having given up aspirations to independence, while the Indonesian military, 17,400 of whom remain in the province, remain "paranoid".

"Of course, there is still anger," says Irwandi. "But we hope they don’t open the old wound."

The fragility of Aceh’s new political arrangements were highlighted only the day previous, when, during an interview with McKerrow at the Red Cross’ Aceh headquarters, a staff member rushed into his office, her face blanched. "I need to speak to you in private, urgently," she hisses.

The head of the German Red Cross delegation in Indonesia, visiting Banda Aceh from Jakarta on a monitoring trip, has been shot three times, in the stomach and arm, by unidentified men on motorcycles. It was a targeted attack that left three Indonesians travelling with him unscathed. The German – in McKerrow’s words, a "tough coot" who has spent a decade working in Afghanistan – is evacuated to Singapore with serious injuries, but survives. In the following weeks, shots targeting foreigners are fired on two more occasions, although noone is injured.

Irwandi blames the shooting on "terrorists" disaffected, destabilising elements in the province whose position has been weakened by the ceasefire, and who fear a peaceful and prosperous Aceh will one day secede. He says he knew such attacks were on the cards, knows who is responsible, and claims they seek to drive Westerners from the province so they can further their agenda without external scrutiny. "I know there’s a web there," he says. "But I don’t know how to cut it."

Despite the targeted nature of the attacks, he says, Aceh remains safe for foreigners. He does not consider the attacks a genuine threat to the province’s stability.

McKerrow, too, is alarmed, but confident the peace will hold. Aceh has survived much worse. "To me, it’s a case that when people have little, then why not fight? But now people in Aceh have got land, houses, education, greater freedom. Things are better than ever. For the first time in 25 years, they’ve got something to lose."

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