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Tsunami anniversary marks fragile peace in Aceh

Reconstruction efforts have been impressive, but concerns remain over peace agreement with Jakarta.

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.”