Tsunami anniversary marks fragile peace in Aceh

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — It was five years ago today that a tsunami, triggered by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake, ripped through Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh and 10 other countries, killing more than 226,000 people.

It was Aceh that would bear the brunt of the tsunami’s force, which killed 170,000 people here, 35,000 of whom were never found.

The scale of the destruction led to an unprecendented outpouring of support from the international community. More than $13 billion was pledged, half of which went to Aceh, allowing more than 800 NGOs, multilateral agencies and donor countries to come here and begin rebuilding.

Many of those groups have now gone, and it is a testament to the reconstruction effort that the only obvious evidence of the tsunami these days is a smattering of decapitated coastal palm trees and several dozen large boats that remain unmoved after being washed miles inland.

girl leaning out of window in aceh
Girl leans out the window of a building near Ule Lheu mass grave, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2009.
(Fauzan Ijazah/GlobalPost)

Throughout Aceh, 140,000 new houses have been built with 1,700 schools, almost 1,000 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports, many more houses of worship and thousands of kilometers of road, according to government figures.

Large groupings of colorful but mostly indentical houses, many of them on stilts, make up new inland communities bearing the signs of their builders — Mercy Corps, Oxfam, International Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services and others.

Despite successful reconstruction, what might be the most remarkable accomplishment since that fateful day is the signing of a peace agreement that ended almost three decades of civil war. More than 30,000 people died during the conflict between Jakarta and separatist rebels, mostly civilians, and countless more had been displaced.

“Before the tsunami, there was the war,” said Romi, 42, sipping tea at a roadside foodstall an hour from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. “Nobody would come through this village during that time, it was too dangerous. Now, people come here for picnics.”

Before the tsunami, hundreds of military checkpoints littered the province, and Indonesia’s central government in Jakarta had all but ensured its isolation, banning most foreigners from visiting or conducting business here.

The tsunami changed all that. The massive wave, carrying a force 1,500 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, obliterated almost 800 square kilometers, bringing with it the urgent need for a settlement to the conflict.

“For the first few months I was working in Aceh, I had to drive through countless military checkpoints,” said Sara Henderson, who heads the Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, which built houses in remote villages along Aceh’s western coast. “Rebels would try and extort money from us. One aid worker was killed on the same road I traveled every day. Another guy was carjacked. It was a difficult atmosphere to work in.”

Six months later in August 2005, however, a peace agreement was signed, giving Aceh some autonomy from Jakarta, including a greater share of revenue from its natural resources and the ability to form local political parties.

Hundreds of former combatants came out of hiding from deep within Aceh’s dense jungle to lay down their weapons, and a government agency was established to help with their reintegration into society.

But while reconstruction has been by most accounts a success, reintegration has lagged. The government agency set up to facilitate reintegration by supplying jobs, schooling and other programs for former combatants, is nearly broke.

“It is part of the peace agreement that the government of Indonesia should help finance reintegration,” said Nur Djuli, who heads the Aceh Peace Reintegration Body. “But that funding has become erratic.”

Djuli said that he had received a third of what was promised and was finding it difficult to institute his programs. In 2008, he didn’t receive a dime from Jakarta, he said.

The result could be dire. Hundreds of former combatants remain jobless, and many have turned to robbery and illegal logging. Petty crimes have plagued the province in recent years, and a spate of shootings and grenade attacks prior to parliamentary elections in April gave rise to fears that peace will not hold.

Djuli said that when he asked a former rebel leader why he continued to illegally log the forests, the separatist replied, “OK, when you can find a way to feed my 200 men, then I’ll throw this chainsaw into the river.”

“What can you say to that?” Djuli asked.

Although much of the military left the province after the peace agreement, those that remain say they suspect former rebels still secretly seek independence.

In 2006, gubernatorial elections put a former separatist leader in the governor’s seat. And Partai Aceh, the new political vehicle made up of former rebels, swept Parliament last April, adding to the military’s concerns.

A group of former combatants, sitting cross-legged in a traditional Acehnese house in the town of Pidie,  said they were suspicious of the military and Jakarta’s intentions. Pidie is the old separatist stronghold, where the founder of the freedom movement, Hasan di Tiro, was born.

On the brink of tears, one man said only a handful of the stipulations outlined in the peace agreement had been met and asked that the Europeans, who helped mediate the peace, either return to monitor progress or give their guns back.

“They took our guns, and then they left,” said one of the men, who didn’t want to give his name, still fearing reprisals. “We now have no means to fight. Who is going to make sure Jakarta lives up to its side of the bargain?”

Djuli said he had spoken to the European peacemakers and was appealing to Jakarta for more funds. He said he didn’t think Jakarta was purposely witholding the money, blaming instead a bloated bureaucracy and a lack of urgency in Jakarta.

“It is still peaceful here, and I do believe the peace will hold,” he said. “But there is still too much unfinished work. If more support isn’t given to help former combatants, who knows what could be the result.”