Indonesian survivors lose patience with the slow pace of recovery

The world's attention has shifted from the Indian Ocean horror of Boxing Day - but the suffering continues
Click to follow

Krueng Raya, shortly after the tsunami struck, was a desperate sight: a ruined, empty landscape where barely a building still stood and survivors combed the rubble with bare hands, searching for the bodies of loved ones.

Krueng Raya, shortly after the tsunami struck, was a desperate sight: a ruined, empty landscape where barely a building still stood and survivors combed the rubble with bare hands, searching for the bodies of loved ones.

Tents now dot the muddy plains of the former fishing village, and a roadside stall sells coffee and noodles near the spot where famished children stood begging for food. The stench of death has lifted, and so has the terror of the sea that drove people up the hillside, leaving the coastal flatland eerily quiet.

In essence, though, little has changed in Krueng Raya, where more than half the population died in the blink of an eye after an earthquake unleashed the tsunami across the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day. Locals are still living in makeshift camps, dependent on food aid, with no jobs, nothing to do and scant hope for the future.

Next Sunday it will be exactly six months since a catastrophe that claimed more than 220,000 lives in 11 countries, including Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives. But it was Aceh, located on the northern tip of Sumatra island, near the epicentre of the massive underwater earthquake, that suffered most. Settled areas totalling hundreds of square miles were flattened, with community after community wiped off the map.

Skeletons are still being excavated in Aceh, where 130,000 people died and 37,000 others are missing, presumed dead. The tsunami prompted an unparalleled flood of donations, and Aceh is awash with international relief workers. More than $7bn (£3.8bn) of aid has been pledged, but in Krueng Raya, and across the province, the reconstruction process is painfully slow.

The town, 30 miles east of the capital, Banda Aceh, has been cleaned up, but the once densely populated seafront plains are still carpeted with debris. Krueng Raya remains a desolate place, and there is still an overwhelming sense of nothingness, of a void where a thriving community once stood. Survivors have marked out their land with wooden staves, but only a handful of new houses has sprung up.

Locals are impatient to rebuild their lives, and above all they long for permanent homes. But they cannot afford the materials, so they wait, month after month, for the government and international aid agencies to help.

On a patch of land above the town, 1,000 people have built temporary shacks from scraps of wood, corrugated iron and nails scavenged from the wreckage of shattered buildings. The little shanty settlement has been provided with water and sanitation, but the huts are very hot and sway alarmingly in strong winds.

"We can't live here much longer," said Zulfiadi, 35. "I want to go back to my own land and build a permanent house. They keep promising us homes, but we're still waiting. I don't understand why it's taking so long."

Those who escaped death are determined to look forward, not back. They wish to shut out the harrowing events that robbed them of everything, including their families. Jumiati, a 31-year-old with a careworn face, lost her husband and three children. Chopping up a jackfruit, she said: "I don't think about it any more. I don't want to remember. I don't want to be sad for the rest of my life."

Karmaini, 28, looks after six orphans, some of them nieces and nephews. Her parents and grandparents died, along with numerous other relatives. "Too many to count," she said. "I'm OK, but my younger sister has lost her mind. She's been in the hospital most of the time. She cries and goes strange when it gets dark."

Down the road, 12 families live in a "barracks", one of the cheap wooden temporary structures built by the government to house displaced people. With their military associations, the barracks are not popular with locals, who have been brutally mistreated by Indonesian troops fighting separatist guerrillas in Aceh.

Puspa, 50, shares a small room with her husband and four children. The electricity does not work, so they use candles and worry about the fire risk. There is no extinguisher. They lived in a tent until a couple of weeks ago, but it blew away in a storm.

Behind the living area are kitchens, but the water supply has never worked, and a stink wafts over from nearby latrines. The barracks lack drainage and the foundations are flooded. A gutter outside is blocked by rubbish. "It will be a real problem when the rainy season starts," said another resident, Ghoni, 38.

By the ocean, near the mosque, locals queued for sacks of rice from USAid, one of scores of agencies working in Aceh. But people would rather go back to work. Their fishing boats were smashed by the tsunami, and they are still waiting for new boats and engines. In the meantime, they sit around, unoccupied, unproductive and bored.

Tsunami victims receive a monthly allowance of 83,000 rupiah (£4.70) from the government. "It's not enough," said Mohamed Amin Bakhtiar, 55, who lives in the shanty town. "I can't even afford to buy a glass of coffee."

Stung by criticism of its inertia, the government recently set up an agency to oversee reconstruction, appointing an energetic former minister, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, as its head.

Mr Kuntoro told The Independent on Sunday yesterday that he understood people's frustrations. "There's been no real progress, so we have to move fast now," he said.