Cover story -- Indonesia
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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

Six months after the tsunami

Devastation, corruption and stifling bureaucracy hamper reconstruction

Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Today Banda Aceh looks much as it did the day after the tsunami struck the shoreline more than six months ago, as if bombs had wiped the coastal settlements off the face of the earth. All houses, army barracks, businesses and bridges were destroyed on that fatal morning. The floods were so powerful that huge ships were washed into the middle of the city -- where one ship remains to this day. The force of the tsunami flooded land three miles from the coast and washed out hillsides up to 60 feet high.

Some 20,000 houses were destroyed. A third of Banda Aceh’s 300,000 people died. In the area, 130,000 bodies needed emergency burial.

The emergency phase of the aid was completed in a matter of weeks. Everybody worked nonstop day and night. Debris was cleared away. Barracks and tents were offered as temporary housing. But the main work has not even begun.

More than half a year after the catastrophe, individuals have built makeshift wooden houses here and there, but an organized reconstruction effort is nowhere in evidence.

“Many will remain in this housing for many years to come,” said Jürgen Tümmler of ECHO, the aid agency of the European Union. “In many camps, people have started to prepare themselves for the next years. They are installing tiles and arranging flower pots.” Tümmler said, “People try to make the best of the misery.”

Long-term, development-oriented reconstruction has turned out to be a Sisyphean task. Not only has the gigantic extent of the devastation hampered the reconstruction, but many aid efforts have suffered from a lack of coordination, policies of the Indonesian government that are often as chaotic as they are contradictory and brazen attempts by local authorities to extort more money.

In March, Jakarta ordered all emergency aid to stop. It wasn’t even clear then if nongovernmental relief agencies would be allowed to stay, and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees was thrown out of Aceh, because, Jakarta argued, the homeless were not refugees but displaced people.

The government presented a reconstruction plan in May that set guidelines for aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations. But then the plan had to be adjusted. The urgently needed construction of permanent housing was postponed again.

The updated plan insisted on a protection zone along the coast to reestablish the former habitat of mangrove and palm forests. But meanwhile, the new minister responsible for reconstruction in Aceh announced that no such protection zone was needed.

Among the many conditions the government has stipulated is the minimum size and minimum cost of each new house. Though the government has yet to rebuild a single house, the Indonesian parliament in early July discussed how more than $125 million of housing aid has mysteriously “disappeared.” Furthermore, Jakarta has not yet paid the contractors who built emergency shelter after the tsunami.

And still it is unclear how long foreign aid agencies will be allowed to work in Aceh.

“The Indonesian government is the major brakeman” to aid, said Tümmler.

By mid-June, Jakarta had granted the first installment for rebuilding Aceh, about $3.2 million. The money is administered by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the new head of the government’s reconstruction agency. Kuntoro enjoys a reputation for incorruptibility, but he is a kind of minister without portfolio. Major reconstruction contracts for roads and hospitals have already been given to American and Australian firms. Many in Aceh’s aid community fear that Kuntoro’s agency will be a bureaucratic bottleneck because each project will need even more official papers and stamps.

Angry about the bureaucratic chicaneries is nobody less than Mawardy Nurdin, the governor of Banda Aceh. “We lost a third of our population and 30 public buildings,” said Mawardy. “For the refugees alone we need 20,000 houses. Until today 20 have been built. The central government doesn’t pay anything, the bureaucracy paralyzes us.”

Fuad Mardhatillah of Banda Aceh’s government explains politely that the reconstruction isn’t slow, but that there has been no money.

The central government in Jakarta defends itself by saying that promised foreign aid has not arrived. Foreign countries though insist that they won’t hand out cash to Indonesia, which is ranked among the world’s most corrupt countries by the global anti-corruption agency Transparency International. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have established an Aceh Trust Fund, but the fund remains empty.

Each party blames the other.

The Red Cross, for instance, had planned to build a new health clinic in the area of Sigli. Out of the blue, the Red Cross was presented with plans for an “oversized” hospital, which --according to Red Cross’ delegate Sonja Zbinden -- would have become Indonesia’s most modern hospital.

Zbinden said she was assured that Sigli needed a state-of-the-art hospital because it was to become a district capital. This reporter, though, could find no one in Sigli who knew anything about their city’s promotion.

Zbinden also said that the prices she was given for medical equipment were overly high.

Because of excessive bureaucracy, lack of coordination and other constraints, Tümmler of ECHO said, many aid agencies were “fighting to even spend the money.”

While in some places the banners with the names of aid agencies are hoisted, similar to advertisements in a sports stadium, in other camps, banners with names of cigarette manufacturers fly, because tobacco companies financed the tents.

On Aceh’s western coast, near a mosque that former president Bill Clinton visited, lies a stranded vessel. Under the bow of the vessel, Tarmizi, who like many Indonesians has only one name, has opened a small restaurant. Tarmizi lost his wife and four children in the tsunami. One day, he said, USAID representatives passed by and hung their nameplate over his restaurant. “They -- nobody helped me with anything,” Tarmizi said. “I took the nameplate down.”

“It’s not easy to spend the money,” said Daniel Beyeler, chief representative of Switzerland’s governmental aid agency SDC. He added that new donations are not needed at this time.

“Astonishingly, there are people still sending donations. One has to be honest toward these people. At the moment we don’t need new money. One might expect clean transparency of the aid agencies on what they do with the money.”

Beyeler, whose relief experience includes time in Baghdad, is constantly on the move for his projects. On a trip in June, he visited Kuta Jantho, a village in the hills one hour south of Banda Aceh, where 2,000 tsunami refugees have doubled the population to 4,000 people.

The displaced dwell in muddy camps. The monsoon rains increase the hardships. The earth in the camps sticks to one’s feet in big clumps.

At least there is drinking water. But Teuku Novizal Aiyub, chief of the local water authority, is close to losing his patience. “It’s a tough life without much future for the 2,000 refugees here,” he said. “After all these months, the tents are starting to deteriorate. The fabric is tearing.”

The government had announced, he said, that it would establish plantations nearby and give each family some land. Another government plan. Nothing has happened so far.

And what he is most tired of, Teuku said, are “new promises.”

He said a group of Singaporeans had come one day and promised 200 houses. Nothing happened. “We need a binding engagement!” Teuku begs and looks at Beyeler. Beyeler grabs his mobile phone. “We need 750 houses in Kuta Jantho,” he tells a colleague at the other end. “Next week,” says Beyeler to Teuku, “somebody will come and have a look.”

* * *

It’s high noon. Somewhere in a camp in Kuta Jantho, Syamsuddin, 32, shivers. He’s skinny and suffers from asthma. He, his wife and 2-year-old daughter survived the tsunami on the island of Pulau Aceh, where Syamsuddin was a fisherman. His wife insists that under no circumstances would they ever go back to the island. “We stay here in the mountains,” says Putri Molyani, 26. “Our fear and the trauma are too great.” Help to the island was delayed many days, she said, and she couldn’t go through anything like that again.

“Today even the slightest trembling of the earth shocks us,” she said. And on the northern tip of Sumatra the earth trembles practically every day.

Because of his asthma Syamsuddin is not able to work. His wife pulls the family through as a cleaner. But she had not received any pay for two months. In Kuta Jantho there are suddenly hundreds of cleaners since the arrival of the tsunami refugees.

* * *

Experts who have worked in other humanitarian crises say the devastation of the tsunami is nearly incomparable. The relief effort following the tsunami is a “highly complex operation that has to consider a variety of interests, shortages and emergencies,” said Amela Husagic, chief delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Aceh. Just burying 130,000 bodies had been an unspeakable logistic challenge, Husagic said.

The Red Cross provided emergency aid to more than 300,000 people. The devastation was so vast, Husagic said, that aid workers simply have not had the time to take care of all the people. “It’s a huge task for everybody and everything,” Husagic said. “Even our statistics have become wastepaper. Everything has to be done anew.”

The Acehnese, who have endured decades of conflict between Indonesian troops and a local insurgency (see accompanying story on Page 14), have learned to be patient, but the lack of any clear reconstruction is trying even their patience.

Junaidi, a student who describes himself as a “true Muslim,” joined his friends in the streets of Aceh at the beginning of the war in Iraq to denounce the West.

Now he says, “Without the foreigners here we would be lost.” He also credits private and religious Indonesian aid agencies for their help. “The central government, though, has lied to us and betrayed us -- again and yet again,” he said.

Some Acehnese are trying to resettle on their old land, building makeshifts huts, as if to say: Here we were and here we stay.

Daniel Kestenholz, a correspondent of European newspapers based in Bangkok, Thailand, visited Banda Aceh in June, six months after a tsunami struck this westernmost island in the Indonesian archipelago.

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

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