The tsunami's widowers search for love

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Far more women than men died when the waves hit Aceh. Five years on, the demographic legacy remains. Kathy Marks reports from Lampuuk

It was one of the most striking images of the Boxing Day tsunami: a mosque with its white plaster facade left standing amid a landscape of grey devastation. The mosque, which serves a cluster of fishing villages known as Lampuuk, was the only building for miles around to have withstood the massive earthquake and tidal waves that destroyed much of Indonesia's Aceh province.

Today, five years after one of the worst natural disasters of modern times, Lampuuk, on Aceh's west coast, has been transformed. Instead of mountains of rubble there are hundreds of new houses. Children race their bicycles around the newly paved streets. The everyday buzz of community life has replaced the wailing of the bereaved.

The area has been rebuilt from the ground up, in a remarkable effort has been replicated around Aceh, where up to 170,000 people died and more than 600,000 were left homeless by the 2004 tsunami. Survivors have rebuilt their lives in an extraordinary testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Yet the wounds remain raw; while normality has been restored, grief hovers not so very far below the surface.

Amiruddin, a lanky 26-year-old, lost both parents when the tsunami hit Lampuuk. Now, sitting in a traditional outdoor coffee shop, he shrugs. "It's been five years. I'm not sad any more." However a few minutes later, he volunteers: "It was much nicer before the tsunami, because our families were complete. We had parents to ask for advice. Now we are like chickens without a mother."

It was at Lampuuk that the tidal waves travelled furthest, crashing into the foothills of the mountains that form Aceh's central spine, four miles inland. Out of a population of nearly 6,000, only 750 people survived – and just 40 of those were women. Across the region, three to four times more women than men were killed, and children also died in disproportionate numbers. In Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, the demographics remain skewed.

Amiruddin, for example, would like to get married but despairs of finding a wife. "As single men, we have to find women from other villages or towns. But it's not easy for someone like me on a low income. All I do is a bit of farming, growing cloves and chilies."

The head of Lampuuk sub-district, Mohammad Dalan, is one of many men who lost their wives. He has since remarried; his new wife, Nurbaiti, had lost her husband. Their story has a tragic symmetry: in Nurbaiti's village more men died than women because the men were working at a local cement factory, down by the sea. Nearly everyone in the factory perished. "It was difficult to face life at that time, because everything was gone – our homes, our families, our livelihoods,"

Mohammad says. "Slowly, things have got better, but life was more joyful before, because there were so many children here and it was wonderful to hear their voices. It's very quiet now." On Aceh's west coast, barely 100 miles from the earthquake's epicentre, the giant tidal waves washed town after town off the map, leaving behind in their immediate aftermath a vast empty landscape relieved only by the occasional smashed husk of a building or patch of decapitated palm trees.

It was a ghostly scene where everything was reduced to black-and-white; now the colour has returned to Lampuuk – in the blue and red roofs of the neat new houses built by the Turkish Red Cross, in the gold of Lampuuk's crescent-shaped beach, and in the green of the reclaimed rice fields and the football pitch where teenagers kick a ball around at dusk.

By the water, where little stalls offer grilled seafood, a young couple gazes out to sea. "I thought I would never see the beach looking so beautiful again," says the young man. A stallholder, who gives his name as Abdurrahman, sighs. "I married a new woman," he says, "but sometimes I break down and call my first wife's name." Many women found themselves widowed, suddenly becoming the sole breadwinner as well as head of the household – an unfamiliar role in this conservative, devoutly Muslim society. One Lampuuk resident, Lindawati, has restarted her dressmaking business thanks to a loan from the British Red Cross. Keeping busy has helped her cope with the death of her husband and son. Besides, she says, "I feel lucky because some people lost their whole family and I still have my daughter." Another, Farida Sulaiman, shows off her new house – one of 2,200 built by the British Red Cross. She survived the tsunami by climbing onto a roof, but is haunted by the memory of a child swept past her on the raging floodwaters, his neck caught in a gate. She weeps frequently as she recalls that terrible day. "When footage of the tsunami is shown on TV, I can't bear to watch," she says.

For survivors, being rehoused was the top priority. However, up to 40 per cent of Aceh's 140,000 new houses are uninhabitable, according to a survey by the Australian government's overseas aid agency AusAID. Many are infested with termites, or leak when it rains.

Craig Thorburn, an Australian academic who has studied the recovery process, believes that "far too much" money was donated. "There was an awful lot of wastage," he says. "They could have achieved the same with half the money."

Surprisingly, then, that a number of people – mainly Acehnese who did not own land or whose land disappeared – have yet to receive houses. They include 24 families living in two rickety "barracks" in Ulee Lheu, the port area of Banda Aceh, built by the Indonesian authorities to accommodate the homeless. A widower, giving his name as Bukari says he has spent three years there – so long that he has opened a grocery store for fellow residents.

He has remarried, and had a son, the new family lodging in two rooms with flimsy plywood walls, bare floorboards roughly nailed together, and a tin roof. His new wife, Desi, has tried to brighten the place up with threadbare rugs and family photographs.

Desi says: "It's not a comfortable way to live. We have to buy water from the water truck, and there are two toilets for 24 families. Sometimes we have to go to the river." Bukari adds: "It's not like living in your own house. We can't keep chickens or grow vegetables." The couple say they have filled in eight forms and held countless meetings with officials in their quest for a home.

Not far from the barracks is the site of a mass grave where 14,000 victims lie buried – adults on one side of the path, children on the other. When relatives visit on auspicious Muslim occasions, it's difficult for them "because you don't know where your family is buried", says Dani, the site supervisor. "You don't know where to sit down and pray."

Near the airport is another mass grave, one of the largest in the world, a resting place for 45,000 bodies. Such reminders of the disaster, including formal memorials, are dotted around Aceh. There is even nowadays a Tsunami Museum, designed in the curved shape of a ship and approached through an entrance known as the Tunnel of Fear, a dark, narrow corridor where water cascades down the walls.

Many Acehnese miss the sound of children playing. In the village of Gampung Dayah Teungoh only half a dozen children survived. "We used to have an elementary school and a kindergarten," says a local woman, Nurhanifah. "One NGO offered to rebuild them, but the village leader said 'No, what for? We don't have any children any more.'"

Another survivor, Razali, holds up both hands when asked how many relatives perished. He soon runs out of fingers: "My wife, three daughters, three sons-in-law, six grandchildren ... Just one son survived." He finds it hard to speak. "Sometimes the shadow and image of the people that disappeared appear in front of my eyes, and I can't believe what I experienced."

He continues: "After five years, we're getting back our community spirit. People are moving into the village and the village has come back to life. We have a mosque to go and pray, we have sanitation to wash our clothes, we have the village atmosphere. But the feeling of sadness never disappears."

Read more about the work of the Red Cross in Indonesia at www.recoveringafuture.org.uk

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