After the Tsunami: One woman's story

Nengsi lives in a tent encrusted with mould. When it rains, her bed is flooded, but she has only salt water in which to wash. When a giant wave destroyed her home six months ago, she and her husband lost everything. Now they are beginning to lose faith in the future. Kathy Marks reports from Lamsenia, Aceh
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The Independent Online

After four days of almost solid rain, Nengsi woke up at 4am to find her tent flooded, with water lapping the top of the bed where her husband, Amiruddin, still slept fitfully. A pair of sandals belonging to each of them had floated away, together with a saucepan. Nengsi, a tiny Acehnese woman, told the story wearily, for soggy nights have become routine for the couple, along with primitive bathing facilities, intermittent electricity and the indignity of having to squat in a field. The interior of their tent, donated by the United Nations, is encrusted with mould.

These are the conditions that Nengsi and Amiruddin have endured since Boxing Day, when their house was destroyed by the tsunami. Their plight is mirrored across Aceh, in north-western Indonesia, where up to 170,000 people died and nearly 600,000 were made homeless.

The remote province bore the brunt of one of the worst natural disasters of modern times, and donations and relief workers flooded in. Six months on, though, the Acehnese have reaped little benefit, other than a basic shelter and a few sacks of rice.

After losing everything - homes, families, livelihoods and communities - at a stroke, they yearn to return to their land and rebuild. Most of the 300-plus international organisations working in the province agree that housing and infrastructure are the top priority. But despite the passage of time, reconstruction has only just begun, and refugees like Nengsi live squalid, transient lives. For up to 200,000 people, home is a tent in one of the ramshackle settlements that have sprung up all over Aceh. Tens of thousands of others are living in crowded temporary "barracks" - cheap wooden structures built by the government, many with poor sanitation and erratic power and water supply. To the visitor, the pace of recovery seems criminally slow, and Indonesian authorities appear finally to have woken up to that fact. Last month a new body, the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, was established to hand out engineering contracts and co-ordinate the work of the government and overseas organisations.

In his first public utterance, the agency's director, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, expressed disgust at the "zero" achievements in Aceh so far. In an interview, he refrained from criticising the government, but said: "We have to move fast now, because there's been no real progress." Foreign aid agencies, under constant threat of expulsion from an area racked by a long-standing separatist war, are similarly circumspect about assigning blame. But the reality is that they were forced to tread water while the government mulled over a reconstruction "masterplan". The 12-volume document was not released until late April, and then only in Indonesian. It was another three weeks before Mr Kuntoro's agency was set up.

If the delay has been frustrating for outsiders itching to do good, it has been intolerable for the bereaved, dispossessed Acehnese. These have been long, empty months for them, and now - not surprisingly - they feel cynical about the aid effort. "I never dreamt we would have to wait so long," said Amiruddin. "At this rate, it will take 20 years to rebuild Aceh."

Nengsi is thoroughly sick of living in a tent. "It's hot, it's cramped, and it's not a real home," she said. "I worry about it blowing away in strong winds. It's boring, too. Living in a tent, you can't open your mind." She washes with water from a salty well. "It makes your skin hurt," she said.

Lamsenia lies on Aceh's west coast, which was near the epicentre of the earthquake and took by far the worst battering. The tsunami wiped out villages on the heavily populated seaside plains, leaving behind a grim death toll and a desolate landscape. The road that winds along the coast was wrecked, with many survivors cut off from aid.

The road has been repaired by the Indonesian army, but is still unsealed and turns into a churning river after heavy rain. Isolated communities are still dependent on food and water delivered by helicopter and boat.

In the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, the mountains of debris that disfigured the city six months ago have largely been cleared, or at least pushed into neat piles by the roadside. The commercial area is bustling again, with hotels and shops reopned and stalls serving Aceh's famous coffee and crab noodles, a popular local dish.

But the picture is very different outside the city, where the trail of destruction is still painfully clear. Heading west, you see clusters of tents every couple of miles, marooned in a sea of rubble and mud. Empty wastelands are interrupted only by fragments of ruined buildings, or the occasional bedraggled palm tree.

So intense is the desire to go home that many survivors have pitched tents on the concrete foundations of their former houses. Some have given up waiting for help, and spent their savings on building materials. Others have put up temporary shacks, using scavenged planks of wood, corrugated iron and nails.

Housing is only one of their needs. People want to work. In Lamsenia, Amiruddin sighed as he pointed out rice paddies inundated with salt water. The men cannot fish, because their boats have been smashed. They have no chainsaws, so they cannot chop wood. Land where chillis and corn were grown is unusable. A shrimp farm was swallowed up by the sea.

Nengsi and Amiruddin were away in Banda Aceh when disaster struck. Returning home five days later, they were greeted by devastation. Every building in their village had disappeared, along with 80 per cent of the population. "Life is completely different now," said Nengsi. "You should have seen this place before; it was very beautiful and green." Life has changed in other ways, too. More than three-quarters of those who died in Lamsenia were women - a trend reflected across the province. The men were chopping wood in the hills, or working in the city. The women and children were at home. Weaker, and less able to swim or climb trees, they perished.

The demographics and social structure of Aceh have been completely transformed. The women played important roles in the community as well as at home, and their deaths have left a gaping void. Men are having to learn domestic skills, and to care for children traumatised by the tsunami and the loss of their mothers. In many cases, there is no extended family to help because everyone died.

Lamsenia is now a village of widowers, and Nengsi is one of only 15 adult women survivors. Eleven of them have moved away, so she can count her female friends on one hand. "Sulasmi. Syukriah. Nurkamah. They live here, but they sleep in a different place, near the mountains, because they're afraid of another big wave.

"So at night there's only me. It feels very strange, and a bit scary too, to be surrounded by so many men. I feel very lonely without the women. I have no one to talk to. We used to go to the rice fields together. We had a women's association, and we also did religious activities. I miss all that very much."

The men of Lamsenia are like lost souls. Sitting outside together at dusk, they talk in whispers about the emptiness of life without their wives. "I am without direction or destination," said Samso Bahri, 29, whose 26-year-old wife, Fausia, died. "I have no-one to share my problems with. The village feels different without the women. It's very quiet. The women were the glue that held the community together."

At every level - society, community, family - Aceh is fractured beyond belief. Hundreds of square miles of settled areas were flattened, with village after village erased from the map. Almost every physical structure was demolished, and up to 90 cent of the population killed. That death toll was repeated across families; Amiruddin lost both parents, three brothers, three sisters and dozens of nephews and nieces.

Aid agencies say they face an unparalleled challenge: not merely replacing buildings, but reconstructing entire communities from the ground up.

For the first three months, their focus was on emergency relief - furnishing food, water and shelter, and preventing disease. Then came the earthquake in late March on Nias island, off Aceh, which killed 600 people and diverted momentum.

There are signs of work taking place behind the scenes. Oxfam has provided water and sanitation in dozens of places. The World Food Programme delivers rice, cooking oil and tinned fish to refugees.

Meanwhile, seed libraries are being scoured to find corn and rice varieties that can be planted in salinated fields.

Relief workers say Mr Kuntoro has kick-started the recovery process, and they are now consulting village leaders about people's aspirations. Despite the events of Boxing Day, most Acehnese are determined to return to live by the sea. One man told Oxfam that he would go back to his land "even if there was a tsunami every week". A proposed ban on building within a mile or so of the coast met such fierce resistance that it has been abandoned. However, the uncertainty that it created is cited as a principal reason for the delay in embarking on major projects.

Paul Dillon, spokesman for the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), says reconstruction entails more than "just throwing up a bunch of new houses". All the support services - water, sanitation, schools and clinics - need to be provided, together with livelihood programmes; the IOM is building new fishing boats and handing out agricultural tools. Tsunami escape roads are being sketched out, so people can flee to the hills.

The IOM is putting up 11,000 transitional homes: prefabricated concrete dwellings that are earthquake-resistant and can be "folded up" and trucked elsewhere. Other agencies, including World Vision and the Red Cross, are also starting to build.

Contracts have gone out for new schools and clinics, and for repairs to harbours and roads.

The work of aid agencies and relief organisations is being directed by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Michelle Lipner, head of the Banda Aceh office, warned against unrealistic expectations. "In the best of circumstances, recovery takes five to 10 years, and these are the worst of circumstances, because we are starting from scratch," she said.

That may be true, but it is no consolation to Nengsi, contemplating another damp night under canvas.

"I want things to be the same as they were before," she said. "It's hard to describe how happy we were before the tsunami."