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Tsunami anniversary marks fragile peace in Aceh

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

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.