Aceh Awaits Rebuilding in Wake of Tsunami

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Almost six months after a tsunami smashed into Indonesia, the people of Aceh province remain frustrated by the disruption of their lives as they wait for promised reconstruction to begin.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Former President Bill Clinton is in the Maldive Islands today, although he changed some of his schedule due to exhaustion. His tour of tsunami-ravaged areas continues tomorrow when he heads to Indonesia to visit the Aceh province. At least 120,000 died there during the December 26th tsunami. Although the reconstruction has begun, according to NPR's Michael Sullivan, many say it is moving too slowly.

(Soundbite of lunchtime crowd)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

Lunchtime in Banda Aceh. At the provincial capital's only KFC, customers can't get enough of the Colonel's chicken, and the lines at the cash register are 10 people deep.

(Soundbite of lunchtime crowd)

SULLIVAN: Young, affluent Acehenese share the KFC's crowded dining area with foreign aid workers. The parking lot is packed with new SUVs sporting the logos of various relief agencies. The KFC reopened in April, and it, like much of the city, shows little sign of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami. And life seems very much back to normal. In other areas, however, `normal' is still years away.

(Soundbite of lunchtime crowd)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Just a few miles from the KFC, aid workers from CARE International distribute food and other supplies to a few of the estimated half a million people displaced by the tsunami, now living in temporary barracks or tents.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Rice, noodles, palm oil, canned sardines and mosquito nets. Five months after the tsunami, more than half a million people still depend on aid agencies for food, water and basic health services. Aceh is on the mend, but not yet on its feet. And more and more Acehenese, like this man, Hosan, are becoming impatient with the pace of the reconstruction effort.

HOSAN (Resident of Aceh Providence): We think so that the progress is very slow, especially in term of the accommodation. Is very little government aid here, but more NGO come here and distributes food or whatever.

SULLIVAN: Five months after the tsunami, many expected more, their expectations heightened, perhaps, by the massive amount of foreign attention and pledges of foreign aid that came their way immediately after the disaster.

Mr. PAUL DILLON (Press Officer, the International Organization for Migration): I hesitate to say this, but we may be victims of our own success.

SULLIVAN: Paul Dillon is press officer for the International Organization for Migration in Banda Aceh.

Mr. DILLON: Because we had so many helicopters, because there were foreign troops on the ground. Well, today those sort of images, those helicopters flying in aid, have largely stopped, and we're settling in. And I think with that, you know--to a certain extent we have to tamp down expectations. This is not going to happen overnight. We are not going to rebuild Aceh overnight--not the international community, and not the Indonesian authorities.

SULLIVAN: One hundred and sixty thousand homes damaged or destroyed, hundreds of schools and bridges washed away, more than 120,000 people dead or missing. Rebuilding capacity at all levels will take time, relief officials say. But many also say the rebuilding could and should be going much quicker. Michelle Lipner heads the United Nations humanitarian effort in Aceh.

Ms. MICHELLE LIPNER (UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Aceh Province): It has been certainly the desire of all the aid community to move forth on reconstruction, but the government of Indonesia had made it very clear all along that no international partners were to initiate recovery and reconstruction activities until they had developed a master plan for development for the province.

SULLIVAN: After months of delays and bureaucratic infighting among various government ministries, that plan is now in place. So is the new agency created to oversee Aceh's reconstruction effort. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto was appointed to head the agency three weeks ago. He too is frustrated by the lack of progress and by the lack of information available to displaced Acehenese who want to know where and when they can rebuild.

Mr. KUNTORO MANGKUSUBROTO (Aceh Reconstruction Agency): People have been waiting for such a long time. It's now May, meaning it's five months already passing. And although they have food and temporary shelters, but there's no clear policy on how they're going to look out for their livelihood. So what I'm going to do is actually to facilitate the NGOs such that they can start building houses and help people there in the villages such that they can start building their livelihood there.

SULLIVAN: That's good news for those waiting in temporary barracks or in tented camps. But some wonder whether the delays have cost the government credibility in its effort to win over a population that views the government with suspicion. The long-running conflict between Indonesian security forces and Acehenese separatists has left thousands dead, many of them civilians, amid allegations of massive human rights abuses. Again, the International Organization for Migration's Paul Dillon.

Mr. DILLON: Everyone acknowledged in the weeks and then first couple of months immediately after the tsunami that there was this unique opportunity, a generational opportunity, for the central government to step up and not be seen as they are today by most Acehenese as being an oppressive force or as being an occupational force, but, rather, as being a force for good.

SULLIVAN: Five months later, Dillon says, that opportunity still exists, but he worries the window may close if the people's frustration continues to grow. Michelle Lipner, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Aceh, is cautiously optimistic the government still has time.

Ms. LIPNER: I don't think the window will close, but I do think that it's important to see some tangible results in the next three months. But I think that the, quote, unquote, "honeymoon period" is still there, and I still think there's opportunity, and I think it behooves us all to sort of seize the time to allay concerns and fears and try to accelerate the process.

SULLIVAN: There have been several recent signs things are beginning to move forward. Since his appointment three weeks ago, the Aceh Reconstruction Agency chief Kuntoro has signed agreements with the Red Cross and USAID to build 20,000 new houses and rebuild Aceh's main coastal highway, projects worth nearly a billion dollars. International donors will be watching closely to ensure their money goes to those who need it in a timely and transparent manner. If not, money could stop flowing, further complicating the already enormous task of rebuilding. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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