A Year After Tsunami, Town Continues to Rebuild Peuken Bada lost nearly half its population in last year's tsunami. Now, nearly a year after a wall of water swept most of the Indonesian town away, homes are being built and a new school is open. But residents are still struggling with the trauma of the disaster and the slow pace of reconstruction.
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A Year After Tsunami, Town Continues to Rebuild

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A Year After Tsunami, Town Continues to Rebuild

A Year After Tsunami, Town Continues to Rebuild

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In one week, it will have been a year since a massive earthquake struck under the ocean floor off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The wall of water that was generated left nearly 170,000 people dead or missing in the Indonesian province of Aceh alone. Hundreds of thousands more were left homeless. Dozens of villages and towns were swept away. NPR's Michael Sullivan has been visiting one town during the year to see how its people have been faring. Here's his latest report from Peuken Bada where authorities say more than 10,000 people, nearly half the population, were lost.


Next to the mosque in the temporary wooden barracks, Laswani(ph) waits for foreign charity to finish her new home. She holds a two-month-old baby in her arms.

(Soundbite of baby cooing)

SULLIVAN: Some Acehenese are angry they've had to wait so long living in the barracks on in tents or with relatives, but Laswani isn't angry at the government or the NGOs. She's angry with herself for not doing more to save her children.

LASWANI (Tsunami Survivor): (Through Translator) I felt the earthquake. It was very strong. Then I heard a very loud noise like the wind. But at first, I didn't see the water. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. The water had already reached us. I tried to hold onto my children as hard as I could, but the water was too strong and it took them from my hands.

SULLIVAN: `I should have put them in the car,' she says, `and driven away fast, but I didn't think of it in time.'

Laswani lost three children that day, the oldest 12, the youngest just four. And yet a year later, she says she is luckier than most. Her husband is working again, her new house is almost finished, and she has her new daughter. But it's not the same as before.

LASWANI: (Through Translator) We were not rich and we were not poor. We were somewhere in the middle and I had my children. So I was happy. But I'm trying to be patient. I'm hoping that things will get better, that I will feel better with time.

SULLIVAN: A few days after the tsunami, about the only structure left intact was the mosque. The rest of the town was gone and the bloated bodies and sickening stench of the dead were everywhere. But Peuken Bada's being transformed. People are drifting back and things do seem to be getting a little better all the time.

(Soundbite of children singing in a foreign language)

SULLIVAN: A new elementary school was finished in September, replacing the tents put up by UNICEF in February. The sturdy six-room school has new blackboards, new desks and new chairs, but too few students left to use them. Surplus desks and chairs are piled high against the wall. Nearly 300 students attended this school before the tsunami. Fewer than 50 remain. Erlinda(ph) is the science teacher.

ERLINDA (Science Teacher): (Through Translator) When the students come back in February, they had a lot of trouble concentrating and they are still having trouble. Maybe it's because most have lost their homes or their parents. But the are doing better now than they were then. Better than just a few months ago even. But I don't think they will be back to normal for quite some time.

SULLIVAN: Few of the students' families have moved back. Most of the children commute here from the barracks or tented camps or from the homes of friends or relatives who took them in in the days after the tsunami.

(Soundbite of ducks)

SULLIVAN: One of those students is 10-year-old Nuswan(ph). He's been living here in his grandmother's home about five miles inland for nearly a year now where the ducks still treat me as a stranger even after a half dozen visits. Most of those displaced by the tsunami in Aceh seem eager to return to their villages to rebuild. Nuswan's parents, Samuredeen(ph) and Rohani(ph), are not. Rohani is still afraid of the water. Samuredeen doesn't want the constant reminder of what he lost: brothers, sisters and parents, the body of one brother recovered just last August.

SAMUREDEEN (Tsunami Survivor): (Through Translator) I've got a little land here from my wife's mother, and if they gave me the money or materials to rebuild here, I would. There aren't enough people back in our village yet to make me want to return. It still feels like a ghost town. Maybe we'll go back eventually, but not any time soon.

(Soundbite of workers unloading stones)

SULLIVAN: Back in Peuken Bada, just a few hundred years from the water, I run into 32-year-old Mercelene(ph), whom I know from several previous visits. He was one of the first to come back in May. Tired of waiting for the government or an NGO to help, he scraped together enough money to build a simple one-room shack on the foundation of his old home. That home was washed away, along with his wife and two small children, when the first wave hit.

(Soundbite of workers unloading stones)

SULLIVAN: Today, workers are busy unloading stones for the foundation of a newer, bigger home for Mercelene, one of 260 that Catholic Relief Services has promised to build here. Mercelene's house could be finished as early as next month and he is beaming. Four days ago, he got a new job and a week ago he got married again to a woman he met in one of the camps.

MERCELENE (Tsunami Survivor): (Through Translator) Yeah, it's been a good couple of weeks for me. I even remember how to smile. My head feels brighter and my heart feels lighter.

SULLIVAN: Unlike Rohani and Samuredeen, Mercelene has no reservations about being back here amid the rubble and among all the other reminders of the family he lost.

MERCELENE: (Through Translator) I'm much more comfy here. I feel more at peace being here. This is where my family is. This is where my wife and children died and this is where my cousins died. Being here makes me feel like they are still with me. Before we married, I told my new wife I wanted us to live here. At first, she was a little afraid, but later on she agreed.

SULLIVAN: Three months ago, Mercelene couldn't even begin to think about starting a new family. When I suggested it might be possible, he looked at me as if I were crazy. Now he says he and his new wife are planning a big one, at least five kids. `I can't replace the family I lost,' he says, `but I think I can try to be happy again.'

(Soundbite of hammering)

SULLIVAN: Behind the barracks and the mosque, local work crews hammer nails and haul bricks for two dozen new homes being built by an Italian charity. The initial cleanup here was phenomenal, but the reconstruction, especially new houses for the displaced, has been painfully slow, not just here but all over Aceh, even though billions of dollars have been pledged for the reconstruction effort.

Mr. ERIC MORRIS (United Nations): I think the tsunami survivors have shown an incredible amount of patience and an incredible amount of gratitude.

SULLIVAN: Eric Morris is the United Nations recovery coordinator in Aceh.

Mr. MORRIS: I think they have as of late become quite perplexed in some measure because expectations were generated and then not all these expectations have been met.

SULLVIAN: A lot of what was said, Morris adds, was said with the best intentions, but probably did not take into account how massive the destruction was and how demanding the recovery and reconstruction would be. Many agencies also had little experience in building homes on such a large scale. In fact, government officials say several may be asked to leave in the next few weeks.

So far, the grumbling in Peuken Bada and elsewhere has been fairly limited. A decades-long separatist insurgency, repressive rule from Jakarta, and then the tsunami have taught the people here how to live with adversity and how to be patient. Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see the recovery of Peuken Bada through photographs of then and now taken by Michael Sullivan in his visits to the village at npr.org.

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