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Indonesians Frustrated by Slow Rebuilding

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Indonesians Frustrated by Slow Rebuilding

Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004-05

Indonesians Frustrated by Slow Rebuilding

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Indonesia's president is here in Washington today. He'll meet President Bush for a talk about human rights and closer military ties. Their meeting comes five months after a tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia. And this morning, we are returning, once again, to a single town where we've been following the recovery. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Peuken Bada.


Five months ago it was hard to imagine this town could ever recover. Ten thousand people, more than half the population, were either dead or missing. Only the mosque and a handful of other buildings remained amid a sea of broken concrete, splintered wood and twisted metal.

(Soundbite of cleanup)

SULLIVAN: The cleanup effort has been extraordinary. Almost all the debris is now gone. Backhoes and bulldozers did much of the heavy lifting. People power is taking care of the rest--local work crews toting chain saws, picks and shovels.

(Soundbite of workers)

SULLIVAN: In Peuken Bada, several cleanup crews are funded by the US Agency for International Development. The temporary jobs pay about $4 a day. For many, it's the only work they've had since the tsunami and they are grateful for it.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: `It's hard to tell when things will improve,' says this laborer, 27-year-old Muhamad Noir(ph). `For now,' he says, `we'll take whatever work there is and hope for something better.' A few hundred yards down the road, something better is taking shape.

(Soundbite of construction)

SULLIVAN: An Islamic charity in South Africa has funded this project--new fishing boats for Peuken Bada residents who lost theirs in the tsunami. The contractor, Mulyati, says he hopes to have 130 new boats ready for Peuken Bada's fishermen by July.

MULYATI (Contractor): (Through Translator) All they have now are temporary jobs, cleaning up their village. But when we finish these boats and put engines on them, we'll be able to give them to the fishermen and then they will be able to go back to work.

SULLIVAN: It's a start, but projects like this one are few in number. While the cleanup has gone well, many residents complain the reconstruction effort is moving at a glacial pace. They know billions have been pledged by foreign donors to help rebuild Aceh, but little has been spent. Peuken Bada residents say they want answers to two simple questions: When will they be allowed to rebuild and who will help them do it? So far, they're still waiting for answers.

Ms. FAAT MAWATI (Peuken Bada Resident): I don't know why so slow. There's talk and talk and talking is not give the solution.

SULLIVAN: Thirty-nine-year-old Faat Mawati lost two of her three daughters to the tsunami. She now lives in one of the temporary barracks built by the Indonesian government. She says her husband doesn't do anything now but pray all day at the home of a relative. `The NGOs want to help us,' she says, `but many say they have to wait for the government.' The decades-long conflict here between Indonesian security forces and Acehenese separatists has left many Acehenese suspicious of and resentful toward the Indonesian government. The slow pace of reconstruction only adds to their sense of alienation.

Ms. MAWATI: We are poor now. We are poor. We just live. You can see us live here. We don't have nothing. I want the foreign government help us rebuilding our homes.

SULLIVAN: And you think it's the foreign governments that will help you do that, not the Indonesian government?

Ms. MAWATI: Indonesian government we don't trust anymore, no.

SULLIVAN: You don't trust them anymore?

Ms. MAWATI: I don't trust. The people here don't trust. You can see. You can...

SULLIVAN: Aid groups are also frustrated. Many reconstruction projects are on hold pending government approval. Some worry that bureaucratic infighting and Indonesia's reputation for corruption will delay reconstruction projects even further. Here in Peuken Bada, a few residents have given up waiting for the government. They're taking matters into their own hands.

(Soundbite of construction)

SULLIVAN: Thirty-two-year-old Mersa Leen(ph) is starting over with a small one-room wooden house. He's built it on the foundation of his old home, swept away by the waves. Nearly a dozen of his friends are donating their labor.

Mr. MERSA LEEN (Indonesian Resident): (Through Translator) Right now I'm living in a tent, but the rainy season is now here, and in another month I believe it will be impossible to live in the tent. They probably won't even be standing. So I've decided to build this small house with the money I've saved and with the help of my friends.

SULLIVAN: Mersa Leen says he's spent the equivalent of $120 on materials, but his savings are now gone and his house still needs a roof. He's hoping to sign on with one of the USAID-funded cleanup crews next week, and he's counting on earning enough quickly enough to build the roof and beat the rain. Before the tsunami, Mersa Leen had a family, a wife and two small children and he had his parents who lived next-door. He lost them all. `I am alone,' Mersa Leen says. `All I want now is the chance at a normal life.'

Mr. LEEN: (Through Translator) Everybody is the same mess. We are all unlucky together. All we can do is try to start over again, to forget the trauma and try to move on.

SULLIVAN: Some of his former neighbors seem to feel the same way. Several modest houses are under construction nearby. The people's impatience and frustration are understandable, says Kuntoro Mangkusubroto. Kuntoro was appointed three weeks ago to head Aceh's reconstruction agency. He calls the lack of progress to date shocking and vows to move quickly to make things right.

Mr. KUNTORO MANGKUSUBROTO (Aceh Reconstruction Agency): I can see maybe their expectation is too high, but I accept that because people have been waiting for five months now. But I do hope that everything will be in place, things will start moving not too long from now.

SULLIVAN: But not all Peuken Bada residents are in a hurry to return home. In fact, a few aren't sure they want to go back at all. After the tsunami, Peuken Bada resident Rohani(ph) came here to her mother's house, a few miles inland. She brought 20 of her friends and neighbors with her. They had nowhere else to go. Five months later, they've all moved on, either to the barracks or to find work elsewhere in Indonesia or to stay in tents closer to their old homes. Rohani is more than content to stay here, far from the water.

ROHANI (Indonesian Resident): (Through Translator) I am happy because my husband says it's all right for us to stay here until the government helps us rebuild our home in Peuken Bada. He says it might take a year before we go back, and that's fine with me.

SULLIVAN: In early January, Rohani appeared to be in shock. Her face was drawn and tense. Five months later, she's clearly at ease. Her smile is bright and wide as her face, even though her nine-year-old son is refusing to go to school today. He's punishing her for washing his favorite shirt. She doesn't seem too worried about it, but her smile vanishes as she contemplates going back to Peuken Bada.

ROHANI: (Through Translator) We still have earthquakes. And when we do, they make me wonder what will happen if I moved back and the water came again. In my heart, I'm still very afraid. Maybe it will be OK in a year or so. If my friends move back, maybe I won't be so scared. I don't know.

SULLIVAN: Her reaction is a reminder that the scars from the December tsunami are more than physical and will linger long after the rebuilding is done. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is Michael's latest visit to Peuken Bada. You can find photographs of the town and earlier reports about it at

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