Michael Bachelard’s article came out in The Age on the 20th. He had warned me that he didn’t have enough space to include palm oil destruction, the many EDFF blunders or the AAA/Keumang disappearing $6.7 million. “In the midst of the tsunami reconstruction stuff,” he wrote, “it was too hard to explain why a highland cocoa plantation was relevant.”
Well, okay. I guess.
He did express sadness that he couldn’t include it but reminded me that the story was “full of other things: empty housing and personal stories of the wave, misgovernance, sharia law, environmental doom and electoral misbehavior.” So that’s good. He also said that our “ideas and help were invaluable in shaping the piece as something other than just a tsunami reconstruction.”
So I’ll forgive him.
And share his article with you.
I do have to say, however, that he put most of the blame at the feet at one or another Indonesian or Acehnese entity (government, GAM, BRR, etc) and pretty much gave a hall pass to the international NGOs who lined their pockets with a significant portion of the reconstruction in the name of consultants, salaries and “administrative fees.”
But we still love him, and he will still keep an eye on Aceh.
[I’ve inserted a few comments, in blue.]
Aceh: after the wave
December 20, 2014
Alongside the loss of lives, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami wiped out a long-time separatist conflict in Aceh. Ten years on, Michael Bachelard finds renewed tensions in the Indonesian province.
A diorama recreates the horror of 2004 at Aceh's Tsunami museum. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
First, the earthquake struck. Roads buckled and houses cracked. Two explosions rent the air and thousands of voices cried out in fear. Then the waves swelled up from the sea and scoured Aceh's west coast with water, bringing debris and death.
But it's not the memory of noise that keeps fisherman Andi Yusuf awake at night when he thinks of the tsunami 10 years ago - it's the silence that followed.
Yusuf was asleep when the earth started shaking at 7.59am on Sunday, December 26, 2004. Informed by half-remembered family lore about earthquakes and killer waves, this fisherman from Aceh's coastal village of Calang fled to higher ground with his wife, baby and young child. Clinging with grim determination to a hillside durian tree, his wife fainting from shock, Yusuf watched as some of his neighbours ran away from the beach while others ran towards it, looking for open ground. The tsunami's towering, 30-metre second wave consumed them all, coming or going.
A hilltop settlement of recently built houses in Lhok Kruet is mostly abandoned, as they have no running water. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
"Before the water came, I heard people panicking, shouting, screaming. They looked like chickens," Yusuf recalls, his fisherman's eyes, which are habituated to the horizon, turning inwards and to the past. "I saw the roof of the school flying into the air, big timber floating. But after the second wave, the big one, I heard nothing. Not a single voice. Silence."
Into this silence, an estimated 167,000 voices fell in Aceh alone. Hearing Yusuf speak, it's amazing not that so many died, but that any survived. He saved his wife and children, but lost perhaps 50 members of his extended family.
In Sri Lanka, 35,000 were killed; in India, 18,000. Thailand lost more than 8000 including 24 of the 26 Australians who died. Globally, 230,000 people lost their lives and perhaps 1.7 million were displaced.
Tsunami survivor Andi Yusuf. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
This was a freak geological event: a "mega thrust" earthquake measuring up to 9.3 on the Richter scale that pushed a 1600-kilometre stretch of the Indian Ocean 15 metres higher. The resultant wave - the biggest tsunami in history - reshaped 800 kilometres of the Indonesian province's western coastline, penetrating three to six kilometres inland. More than 120,000 houses were flattened, 500,000 left homeless, the road system obliterated. Administrative data - birth and death records, property ownership details - were destroyed and public servants killed or incapacitated by grief. The rebuilding of western Aceh started from scratch.
But the tsunami was not just a physical event, it was also a profound political event - the single most important spur to ending a 30-year civil war between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM for its Indonesian initials).
It's easy, in the tsunami's awesome wake, to diminish the conflict that predated it. But ordinary people do not forget the separatist era's disappearances, the random killings, the relatives dead in the street. Calang villager Rosmalia remembers constant fear. "You heard shootings in the nearby town. You heard stories that people were killed by the security apparatus - shot from head to toe by bullets so that their body just split in half," she says.
This mosque, 20 kilometres from Aceh’s capital Banda Aceh, was the only building left in the area
after the tsunami. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
"In 2004, after 30 years of conflict, there was no development in Aceh: schools were being burned down, the social fabric was in pieces," says Heru Prasetyo, the former deputy head of the Indonesian tsunami reconstruction authority. "The only thing that was safe was the forest, because the rebels lived there and nobody was brave enough to go in and cut down trees."
In his view, nature did Aceh a favour. "Aceh was like a person who was almost dead from a heart attack. The tsunami was a jolt that brought it back to life."
Asked about Prasetyo's analogy, Rosmalia barely pauses before agreeing: "The trauma of the conflict was worse than the tsunami."
Lhok Nga school students practice a tsunami drill. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
The size of the disaster was incomprehensible, the global response unprecedented. A 2008 Brookings Institution paper estimated the total damage to Aceh at $US4.45 billion. In response, the international community pledged $US7.7 billion. Two-thirds of that was spent in just three years by 463 organisations across 2200 projects. Remote Meulaboh had, at one point, 20 surgeons in field hospitals.
The aid was "like a second tsunami", says Prasetyo. "Catholic relief worked with Muslim aid and non-government organisations (NGOs) from Israel were working in the land of sharia, and working effectively. It was like the John Lennon song Imagine: no religion, no country. It was so powerful."
Huge international organisations, including the World Bank, USAID, the United Nations Development Programme and Australia's AusAID, co-operated with a quickly formed Indonesian agency, the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, under a straight-talking former minister, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto.
Australia contributed $600 million - more than half of it donated by the public. Our money trained people and built capacity in education and health, livelihoods, infrastructure and the public service.
Mangkusubroto's reconstruction authority stands as a "remarkable success", according to Australian National University academic Ed Aspinall. "It's a landmark in Indonesia's modern political economy about how to run a large development or construction endeavour in a way that significantly avoids or minimises corruption."
But it was never going to be perfect. The first priority was housing: 140,000 houses were eventually required, and agencies were under pressure to spend their funds quickly to satisfy donors and watchful journalists.
In the northern suburbs of Aceh's capital, Banda Aceh, lies a beachside community called Lhok Nga. Here, the mountains funneled the wave into a torrent which wiped away everything but the mosque. Not long after, though, it had regrown like a simulacrum of a 1950s suburb: identical, box-like, 36-square-metre rendered concrete houses standing in symmetrical rows. Many now stand empty.
"They are empty because for most of them only the children are left: the parents are dead. They were only small [when the wave hit], so they live with extended family," says Umran Amril, smoking a quiet afternoon cigarette in a Lhok Nga cafe. Some are rented out, but the Acehnese attachment to land means few want to sell: "We wanted it rebuilt because the land belongs to our great-grandparents," Amril says. "We won't sell for same reason."
It's a similar story all down the tsunami-devastated western coast. In Lhok Kruet, about 30 minutes from hard-hit Calang, Canadian money built a settlement of 250 houses atop a hill, at the request of local fishermen. They are certainly high enough to survive any future tsunami, but only 28 are now occupied. The fishermen changed their minds when they realised there was no running water and, until recently, no electricity.
In Calang, itself, Yusuf takes shelter from the heat of the day in a rubbish-strewn village harbour. He's unwinding old nylon ropes, preserving the individual strings to re-weave into nets. Nearby is a concrete pier, an office building, a small market area and a petrol station, all built (and decorated with maritime themes) by international donors. All now are abandoned.
The pier, Yusuf says, splashes back waves which swamp their boats, so locals built a replacement from wood. The market has none of the equipment they need and there's no toilet or other facilities in the office building, so people won't work there. Salt, wind and rain are now picking these buildings apart as surely as Yusuf dismembers old ropes. Two large boats are keeled over in the shallows and also decaying. They were donated but never used - too light, too dangerous, he says.
"There was a lot of assistance but they came rushing to help; they didn't ask what we need." He also has a more fundamental complaint, this one against the local government authorities. He's one of 25 local victims who missed out on the new houses, while some "who are not native to this area - civil servants from [East coast province] Bireuën - got them". This blatant misallocation "is very much about corruption", he says.
Corruption is baked into politics in Indonesia, and Aceh probably never stood a chance of avoiding it.
After the wave, peace came surprisingly quickly. An informal, though shaky ceasefire in the last days of 2004 was followed by talks endorsed by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had only been in office for two months when the tsunami hit. He had little choice: donors, aid agencies and journalists were prising open a previously airtight state in their rush to oversee the recovery. Continuing a war, or even the prevailing state of martial law, was untenable, though hard-liners on both sides tried. In August, 2005, in Helsinki, Finland, the two sides ended 30 years of brutality by signing a Memorandum of Understanding. Suddenly, about 30,000 armed and largely uneducated former separatist rebels were demobbed. Hardened by combat and accustomed to collecting money using extortion justified locally as "war taxes", many found it hard to mend their ways. [especially when they were promised livelihoods and compensation in exchange for agreeing to the cease-fire and to this day have never been compensated.]
The rampant inflation that came with an influx of foreign funds to Aceh was accelerated by these former GAM rebels - now rebadged as the Aceh Transitional Committee, or KPA - "taxing" the reconstruction.
Even USAID's landmark project, a silk-smooth western highway, was subject to "epic blackmail", one former consultant recalls, to the extent that the project director publicly threatened to cancel it.
"The extortion attempts on NGO projects in Aceh followed a familiar pattern," wrote aid worker Bobby Anderson in 2013. "Persons claiming KPA affiliation would make demands to field staff for protection fees or material, often vehicles . . . The threats often implied the arson of vehicles and the killing of staff. Numerous projects were shut down due to this." [I have to say that in all that time, during those first months and years after the tsunami, JMD never had a problem, and we worked in the most remote and conflict-affected areas of the province. I’m not saying that these events did not happen, but I think there was, at times, a specific hostility towards large and fairly presumptuous NGOS who as the article mentions did not understand the context in which they were operating, nor did they care.]
Come election time, though, the former rebels, with their history of resistance and bullish sub-national pride, won overwhelming support. Former combatant Irwandi Yusuf became Aceh's governor in 2006. More educated than most of his compadres, he surprised observers and won wide international support as a pro-environment leader wanting to build an outward-looking economy by taking advantage of global carbon funding to preserve the province's forests. Aceh is the last place on earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinos still live together.
After a bitter internal GAM power struggle, though, Irwandi lost the governorship at the 2012 election to an old-generation combatant, Partei Aceh's Zaini Abdullah. Thirteen people were murdered during the campaign. [And with the palm oil extraction interests winning over even large donors like USAID, the rhinos, elephants and tigers are not far behind.]
To this day, government loyalists in Aceh are accused of standover tactics, extortion and corruption, particularly involving construction projects. Aid worker and activist Muslahuddin Daud sees the ex-combatants as trying to preserve the "war psychology" that got them into power: "If you build a house, they'll say, 'The sand should be from me, or we'll blow up your car,' " he says. [I don’t know if it’s so much a “war psychology” as an “I need to eat” psychology. These combatants saw a fraction of their numbers receive government positions and large pensions—and those same leaders then turned their backs on them. In some ways they believe themselves to be the only legitimate defenders of the province left standing, and they are repaid with poverty and isolation.]
Since Abdullah's election, almost all international NGOs have left. Some, no doubt, believe Aceh no longer needs their help. The Indonesian government's own reconstruction authority was disbanded in 2009, and under a "special autonomy" arrangement, Aceh qualifies for generous central government funding, but former governor Irwandi told Good Weekend that they'd also been put off by Abdullah's decision to "win the 2012 election by force". [for some reason both governors have sent back the funding each month. It boggles the mind.] And the forests - preserved for so many years as redoubts of the rebels - are now under threat from a proposed spatial plan that would allow massive industrial development. [They became threatened as soon as the peace accord was signed in 2005 and the government welcomed international palm oil and mining cartels in to destroy the protected forest and use no discretion in obliterating the rest of it. Protection laws are not good if no one reinforces them. The spatial plan is just closing the barn door after the horse has left.]
The worst outcome, Muslahuddin says, has been the government's administrative failures. Nine years after the peace deal was signed, negotiators for the Aceh and central governments have still not agreed on implementing laws for power sharing, oil and gas revenue and land ownership. This leads, for foreign investors in the oil-rich province, to persistent uncertainty and, for some Acehnese nationalists, to the belief that Jakarta is denying them fulfillment of their rights. "If [the full Helsinki agreement] is not granted, of course we will take up arms again," a senior Partei Aceh election committee member told Good Weekend. "We could declare war any time. We could declare war tomorrow."
[And just what have I been saying for a year? Hah? But does anyone listen to me??]
Aceh's use of Islamic sharia law in the criminal code likewise deters foreigners. It was introduced by Jakarta in 2001 to try to buy the support of Aceh's devout religious leaders, but it only came to international prominence after the tsunami. According to the director of the Jakarta-based Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, Sidney Jones, among the foreign organisations that flooded into the province were Islamic hardline lobby groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Until their arrival, Aceh - long known as the "verandah of Mecca" - was devout but also "very tolerant". Hardline Islamists succeeded recently in adding to long-standing bans on gambling, drinking and unmarried young people consorting. Now adultery and homosexuality are also criminal offences, subjecting to 100 lashes men who have anal sex with each other, and women who "rub together body parts for stimulation". [It is interesting, then, that World Vision operates so freely in the province, being an evangelical Christian organization—or do they not know that in Aceh?]
A censorious approach to opposition also prevails. "Any organisation which criticises the government is said to be anti Islamic sharia," says Roslina Rasyid, the leader of a network of local NGOs in the north-eastern Aceh city of Lhokseumawe. People are deterred from raising examples of abuses, she says.
"It's a real problem for Aceh now, and long-term, they have to deal with it if they want foreign investment and tourism," says Sidney Jones.
Aceh desperately needs economic growth. About 18 per cent of the population is still in poverty and new political schisms, fuelled by poverty and thwarted hopes, are emerging among former combatants. "You wouldn't want to predict a regression to any full-scale separatist conflict, but on the other hand, you would have hoped that 10 years after the peace deal you'd have seen a stronger fading of that sense of resilient, resistant Aceh identity," the ANU's Aspinall says. "It bubbles away, but it's much closer to the surface than you'd expect."
At Lhok Nga primary school in Banda Aceh's suburbs, where the wave killed all but 90 of its 400 students, the recovery is obvious in the numbers: 435 children are enrolled this year.
Shifa Teskia's father died in the wave. Now 12, she says she wants to be a doctor. For today, she and her classmates are performing one of their regular tsunami drills - initiated by World Vision - and Shifa wears a sash proclaiming her a dokter kecil (small doctor). She's earnestly dabbing a pretend wound of pretend patient Mohammad Azri, 10, who in real life was orphaned as a baby by the wave.
Their teacher, Laili Hafna, saved her own four children a decade ago by rushing to the local mosque. Her sister, husband and baby all perished. As she looked out at the devastation that day, Hafna says she truly believed she was watching the world end: "I never thought I would be here today, that there would be life after all."
Like many, though, Hafna now wonders if the tsunami, a bit like Noah's flood in the Bible, was Allah's way of saving them from what went before. "During the combat, we always lived in fear," she recalls. "Life was very difficult ... we thank Allah that we can have this life now, and that it's a different life."
Surely, though, it was a brutal price to pay?
"That is His mystery," she replies with a smile.