Tsunami-ravaged Aceh rises rapidly from the ruins

MEULABOH, Indonesia - Rows of new houses and beautiful mosques with glittering minarets give little clue that the sleepy Indonesian fishing town of Meulaboh was the ground zero of the 2004 Asian tsunami, highlighting the success of a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction effort.

The peaceful scenes now are a contrast to those a decade ago in the community in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, which was closest to the epicentre of a monster earthquake that generated the killer waves.

When disaster struck on December 26, 2004, thousands in Meulaboh were killed, houses reduced to rubble, trees uprooted, and the only buildings left standing were a few of the better-constructed mosques in the staunchly Islamic area.

With roads destroyed and communication lines wiped out, the town was almost completely cut off for weeks, leaving people desperately fighting for survival amid piles of debris, reliant on air drops or deliveries by boat for food.

"The tsunami broke everything we held dear, our homes, our families," resident Saleha, 50, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

"But it did not break our spirit. We pulled ourselves together and let God handle the rest."

In the aftermath of the disaster, which left almost 170,000 dead in Indonesia and tens of thousands more in countries round the Indian Ocean, a huge global relief and reconstruction effort swung into action.

Almost $7 billion (S$9 billion) in aid was paid out in the following years, with more than 140,000 houses rebuilt across Aceh, as well as thousands of kilometres (miles) of roads, numerous new schools and health centres.

The rapid reconstruction was helped by the end of a decades-long separatist conflict, with a peace deal between rebels and Jakarta struck less than a year after the disaster.

"Many non-governmental organisations and individuals from foreign countries and Jakarta came to help. Without them, Meulaboh would not have recovered," Alaidinsyah, chief of West Aceh district which includes the town, told AFP.

Struggling to survive

In Meulaboh alone, around 100 miles (160 kilometres) south of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, 7,000 people were killed and 45,000 were displaced out of a population of 70,000, and much of the infrastructure wiped out.

After the area was cleared of corpses and debris, the many left homeless went to live in temporary shelters, where they waited several years for new houses.

Roads were rebuilt wider and new houses and shops were constructed further from the sea to protect them from the danger of future tsunamis, while several double-storey buildings in the town centre now serve as emergency shelters.

It is the same story across the province. Newly built roads sweep along the coast and Banda Aceh is a well-run, pleasant city with increasing signs of affluence.

But while the pace of reconstruction was rapid, some question whether the decision to focus heavily on building new houses and infrastructure was the correct one.

Lilianne Fan, who worked with aid organisations in Aceh and advised the province's governor on sustainable development, said more should have been done to ensure people had jobs and secure livelihoods in the long run.

A decade on from the tsunami, aid money has dried up, a hoped-for flood of new investment has not materialised, and many of the new houses now lie empty as local people cannot afford their upkeep, she said.

"People are really struggling to survive," said Fan, who is currently a research fellow at British think-tank the Overseas Development Institute.

Even Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of a government agency that led reconstruction efforts in Aceh and has been widely praised, conceded he was disappointed with the lack of investment, pointing out no new manufacturing plants and plantations had opened up in the province.

Some organisations did seek a more sustainable approach, however, focusing on activities such as health and education training programmes.

US-based group the Grameen Foundation worked with a local microfinance institution, Komida, to offer small loans, typically of $110, to women in Aceh for projects such as setting up streetside food stalls.

Such a system allowed people to "really take charge of their development", said Alex Counts, head of the foundation.

While there are doubts about the reconstruction effort, many remain grateful for the help they received to rebuild their lives.

"I never thought the world would care so much about us," said 55-year-old houswife Shariah, who was relocated and given a new house after the tsunami.