Banda Aceh's triumph over war and disaster

The Indonesian island was wrecked by conflict before natural devastation, in the form of the 2004 tsunami, proved a catalyst for change

In a fishing village west of Banda Aceh, young men gather in an outdoor coffee shop at dusk to talk, smoke and watch the television news bulletin. It is an unremarkable scene – yet it is one that for many years was rarely seen in this part of Indonesia. Racked by a separatist conflict for nearly three decades, the province of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, was a tense, fearful place. Then came the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, which injected a new urgency into long-stalled peace negotiations. Seven months later, the warring parties signed a historic agreement to end the violence.

While peace was an unexpected by-product of the tsunami, it has helped the province to recover from one of the world's worst natural disasters, while at the same time radically improving the lives of ordinary Acehnese. "You could say the tsunami was a blessing," says Azwar Hasan, head of a local NGO, Forum Bangun Aceh. "We are no longer living in fear."

No one could have predicted that the giant waves that destroyed entire towns and villages, killing more than 160,000 people and leaving half a million homeless, would transform the political landscape so thoroughly. But the provincial governor who will preside over the sober ceremony next Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of the disaster is a former rebel commander, Irwandi Yusuf, and ex-combatants also wield power as district leaders and local representatives in the Indonesian parliament.

Equally, no one who visited Aceh just after the tsunami, which was triggered by a huge, 9.3-magnitude underwater earthquake, would have believed it possible for the place to be rebuilt so quickly from scratch. While 13 countries bordering the Indian Ocean were affected, the province – barely 100 miles from the epicentre – was ground zero, and a 500-mile stretch of the densely populated west coast, extending nearly two miles inland, was flattened.

Banda Aceh, the bustling capital, is unrecognisable from five years ago, when it was a grim, silent wasteland, its streets piled high with the debris of smashed buildings and washed by fetid floodwaters. Now, thanks largely to $.6.7bn (£4.1bn) of foreign aid, the city is a sea of spanking new houses, schools, clinics, mosques, markets and streets.

While there are reminders of the tragedy everywhere, in the memorials, peace parks and mass graves, as well as in the sad eyes of survivors, the dreadful stench of death that hung over the devoutly Muslim province has gone. The air is no longer pierced by grief; instead, there is commerce, laughter and a sense of normality.

Normality was absent even before the tsunami struck. The streets were deserted in the evening, and people avoided each other's eyes, unsure whom they could trust, fearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Indonesian security forces, notorious for their brutality and corruption, maintained a heavy presence, while the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which engaged in extortion and intimidation, inspired almost equal dread.

Now GAM fighters have handed in their weapons and rejoined civil society, and the military is almost invisible, in coastal areas at least. Meanwhile, the province, which was virtually closed to outsiders during the civil war, is bidding farewell to thousands of international aid workers who took part in the remarkable reconstruction effort, one of the biggest ever undertaken. Nearly 500 overseas agencies were involved in building 140,000 new houses, 1,700 schools, 996 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports, 3,800 mosques, 363 bridges and more than 23,000 miles of road. But the statistics only tell part of the story, for in parallel with the physical restoration of Aceh, people have slowly been recovering from the trauma of losing everything: home, village, community, livelihood and numerous close relatives.

The 2004 earthquake punched a hole in the wall of the Banda Aceh prison holding Irwandi Yusuf and 286 fellow GAM members. Three days later, GAM announced a ceasefire, and in August 2005, following talks mediated by Finland's former president, Martti Ahtisaari, a peace deal was reached, which, among other things, allowed for the establishment of local political parties and guaranteed the province the lion's share of revenue from its vast natural resources. In February 2007 Mr Irwandi was sworn in as Aceh's first democratically elected governor. The transition to peace has not been entirely smooth. It has been difficult to find work for thousands of former guerrilla fighters, some of whom, underemployed and frustrated, have turned to crime. "They only know how to use a Kalashnikov, so what do you put in their hands to enable them to make a living in peacetime?" asks Bobby Anderson, co-ordinator of the International Organisation for Migration's post-conflict reintegration programme.

A government agency, the Aceh Reintegration Board, was set up to allocate cash grants and housing to former rebels. Among its employees is Kacut, an ex-combatant who has exchanged her automatic weapon for a computer. This serious young woman, who wears lipstick and an Islamic headscarf, has no regrets about her involvement with GAM, which she joined at 18, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, father and brother. "I joined because my father's nephew and other relatives had been tortured by Indonesian military forces," she says. "It was a difficult life, but there was no choice, and it was difficult for all Acehnese at that time. However bad things were, I never thought of giving up."

While she is happy with her new life, some ex-rebels remain dissatisfied, believing that the peace agreement did not go far enough. Saifdul Helmi, who spent 18 months in prison, where he was subjected to water torture and electric shocks, says: "The goal of our fighting was to gain independence for Aceh, and we haven't achieved that." There is resentment, too, that villages in the Acehnese hinterland, ravaged by decades of civil war, have received relatively little assistance. Craig Thorburn, an Australian academic who has closely studied the recovery process in Aceh, says: "The resources available for post-conflict reconstruction are minuscule, while tsunami-affected areas have had plenty of aid."

Many tsunami survivors, meanwhile, received substandard housing because contracts were awarded to former GAM commanders, according to Mr Thorburn. "They got their peace dividend, but a lot of houses were built with shoddy materials, and people were afraid to complain," he says. Almost everyone has been rehoused, though, and the extraordinarily resilient Acehnese are getting on with their lives. In the coastal village of Gampung Dayah Teungoh, children race their bicycles around the freshly paved streets, while young men sit on the beach, gazing out to sea. A woman washes her wailing toddler under a tap.

Most of Gampung Dayah Teungoh's population was wiped out in the disaster. The 119 survivors include Nurhanifah, 47. She says: "It's much quieter than before. But we try to forget the tragedy and the trauma by working and keeping active." Razali lost his wife, three daughters and six grandchildren. His house was destroyed; all that was left of the village was one tall coconut tree and the tiled floor of the mosque. "You don't want to see how bad it was then," he says. "It was so sad."

Now life is slowly improving. "After five years, we're finally getting back our community spirit, because people are moving into the village and it has come back to life," Razali says. "We have a mosque to go to; we have sanitation to wash our clothes; we have the village atmosphere. But the feeling of sadness never disappears."

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