AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. As survivors of November's typhoon in The Philippines slowly put their lives back together, the rest of Asia has been marking the anniversary of another disaster. Just after Christmas nine years ago, a huge tsunami swept through the region. At least a quarter of a million people died.
Some of the worst damage was in the Indonesian province of Aceh. There whole villages were swept away by a wall of water so powerful it picked up ships and swept them several miles inland. Michael Sullivan covered the aftermath of the tsunami in Aceh, and he recently visited the area again.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Friday prayers at Banda Aceh's main mosque in the center of the city. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, and the Acehnese are proud of the fact that their province is one of the firs, if not the first, place Islam arrived in Southeast Asia, brought not at the point of a sword but by Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula.
The Acehnese admit they're the most stubborn people in Indonesia, hands down, and they wear it like a badge of honor. When the Dutch colonial invaders came, the Acehnese fought them hard. And for several decades before the tsunami, Acehnese separatists fought hard against a brutal occupation by the Indonesian army. That stubbornness, that resilience, helped the Acehnese survive the tsunami, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF SWING)
SULLIVAN: The Sulawah Golf Club is a few miles down the road from Banda Aceh in the seaside town of Lhoknga, made famous after the tsunami by stark photos of the local mosque surrounded by a sea of debris that came to symbolize the terrible destruction brought by the wave of water. But that was nine years ago.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice shot. No, come on...
SULLIVAN: Lhoknga has been rebuilt, including the golf course, though the golfers grumble it's not what it used to be, the saltwater not kind to the fairways and greens. But the course is packed with Acehnese and Malaysian tourists, and the nearby road is lined with tidy houses built with help from NGOs post-tsunami.
SABARI: (Speaking foreign language)
SULLIVAN: Sabari, one name, lives next to the golf course. He flags down passing foreigners at every opportunity it seems, waving a framed photo of him posing with Bill Clinton, who came to Lhoknga with George Bush shortly after the tsunami to help raise money for the aid effort.
SABARI: (Speaking foreign language)
SULLIVAN: Sabari lost his wife and daughter to the tsunami. But all he can talk about is meeting Clinton. And he is sweet enough, but seems just a little bit off. A woman who lives nearby tells me he's been that way since the tsunami, trauma she says, and then adds there's a lot of people around here like that. But there's also a lot more who have moved on.
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SULLIVAN: The beach at Lhoknga is impossibly beautiful: crescent-shaped, white sand, popular with families who come from nearby Banda Aceh, the women covered in headscarves, the children playing volleyball in the sand. And the nearby fish shacks are packed on weekends. It's a very different Lhoknga than the former U.S. presidents saw.
FIRDA AL FATA: For the people who still live, they have a better future than they thought before the tsunami came.
SULLIVAN: That's Firda Al Fata. She's a 30-year-old college grad who worked with several NGOs after the tsunami.
FATA: For short term, of course, this is a really bad thing. But for the long term, there are many, many things good happen here.
SULLIVAN: Chief among them peace, an end to the long-running conflict between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian military. The tsunami served as a catalyst for a peace deal between the two sides and greater autonomy from Indonesia.
RINA MEUTIA: It's a blessing in disguise.
SULLIVAN: That's Rina Meutia, a former disaster risk specialist with the World Bank in Washington, with a master's from the Clinton School of Public Service. She also spent time working for the U.N. in East Timor and is now running for a seat in the local parliament. She says it's hard to overestimate just how bad it was before the tsunami during the Indonesian occupation, when a 6 p.m. curfew was vigorously enforced by the army.
MEUTIA: You get scared, you don't know what's going on next; the next morning you go to school, you see, like, so many buildings burned or destroyed. So to have this kind of peace, you can go out even like 11 at night just to grab a coffee, that's such a great feeling. And it's a blessing to have peace. You have no idea. Not to live in fear, that's like the best things ever.
SULLIVAN: The provincial capital Banda Aceh is awash in new cars, motorcycles and cell phone shops, all indicative of the trickle-down benefits billions in aid money brings. But nine years on, the aid workers are gone, the money drying up. And the greater political autonomy hasn't translated into real economic progress for many here, especially those in the rural areas, even though Aceh is rich in natural resources.
SAIFUL MAHDI: Out of 33 provinces in Indonesia, we are the fourth in terms of how rich we are in income per capita. But at the same times, the number of poor, head count, we are number five. So we are the fourth richest but also the fifth poorest in the country.
SULLIVAN: Saiful Mahdi is a senior lecturer at Aceh's Syiah Kuala University. The long-running conflict, he says, stifled development. And the local government, he says, could do a lot better in terms of allocating resources to help improve livelihoods. Indifference, ineptitude, corruption, all of them, he says, but it's still early days for the newly autonomous region.
He and almost everyone else I spoke with thinks the relief effort and reconstruction that followed was extraordinarily successful, though he and others agree it could have been even better.
PATRICK DALY: I think the first three years could have been a lot more effective, and it could have been a lot less internationalized.
SULLIVAN: That's Patrick Daly, a researcher at the National University of Singapore who's been studying post-tsunami Aceh for the past nine years. He says the Philippines post-Haiyan could learn from mistakes made here. He says once projects here were transferred to local partners, for example, they worked better and probably will in the Philippines, as well.
DALY: Empower them. Let them make decisions from the onset about planning. Give them real responsibility to determine spending and how to allocate budgets. And let them determine the priorities. And you will find that the projects will most likely be more effective and most likely to last after the aid dries up.
SULLIVAN: But for a province reeling from decades of brutal conflict and then the tsunami, Aceh could be doing a lot worse. Back at the beach in Lhoknga, local taxi driver Nasir Mohammed digs into a delicious-looking fried grouper at one of the fish shacks.
NASIR MOHAMMED: (Speaking foreign language).
SULLIVAN: After the tsunami, he says, post-conflict, he had a chance to earn, and he's used it well. He's got two cars for ferrying tourists and businessmen to and from the airport and the golf course. And he's got three sons he says will all go to university, something no one in the family has ever been able to do. Yes, he says, the tsunami was terrible for the victims, but who am I to question God's will? In today's Aceh, he says, is better. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan.
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CORNISH: This is NPR News.
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