Monday, 7 December 2009

Fresh fortune in wake of tragedy

It's been a hectic last few weeks as we begin to edge near a completion of our Tsunami work in Aceh. Tomorrow I head back to the tsunami affected province of Aceh where I have another panel interview with Al Jezeera. The media is showing a lot of interest in the 5th anniversary of the Tsunami on 24 December, 2009, and I must say the two NZ Zealand journalists I have met recently in Indonesia, Tim Hume and Damian Christie, are outstanding professionals who are as good as any other top journos I have met over the years. Below is an article published in the Auckland Heral last weekend.



Foreign aid has eased the struggled for survival. Photo / Chris Skelton


Banda Aceh was destroyed by the Boxing Day tsunami, five years ago this month. Now, reports Damian Christie, it has rebuilt on a foundation of international aid and tourism.

On the main road between the airport and the small Indonesian city of Banda Aceh is a field. Maybe the size of two soccer pitches. It's unremarkable.

An undulating low concrete wall and gate separate it from the passing traffic; towards the back, bamboo scaffolding surrounds a half-completed sculpture of a large wave. Beneath the unkempt green grass lie some 45,000 bodies. The exact number will never be known, but it's one of the largest mass graves in the world.

On December 26, 2004, Banda Aceh was rocked by a massive earthquake. At 9.3 magnitude it is the second-largest earthquake ever recorded by a seismograph, and the third deadliest in recorded history. The earthquake itself might have killed as many as 20,000 people. Minutes later, the tsunami came.

A wall of water up to 30m high swept kilometres into the low-lying city. By the time the water cleared, almost one in three of Banda Aceh's inhabitants were dead - more than 60,000 people. Maybe 100,000 more died in the surrounding province.

Of all the places hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami, Banda Aceh was hit first and hit hardest. Phuket, which many associate closely with the tsunami, saw just 259 official deaths.

This small Indonesian city at the northwestern tip of Sumatra lost more lives than all other countries combined. Virtually everything was destroyed - lives, homes, businesses, society.

What followed was one of the biggest reconstruction efforts in the world. A total of $8 billion was contributed by governments, NGOs, charities and individual donations for reconstruction in Aceh.

The New Zealand Government gave $68 million - $24 million more was given by ordinary New Zealanders to rebuild the stricken areas literally from the ground up.

But with many dozens of organisations involved (more than 30 NGOs from New Zealand alone) in a country rated among the most corrupt in the world, how much of that money was put to good use, and how much found its way into the pockets of officials and irrelevant vanity projects?

BOB MCKERROW, a New Zealander, is head of the International Red Cross delegation in Indonesia. When the tsunami struck he was first sent to India, Sri Lanka, then the Maldives, and has been overseeing reconstruction in Aceh for the past 3 years.

The Red Cross has contributed $1.5 billion to rebuilding Aceh, second only to the Indonesian Government.

Having worked on such projects internationally for decades, Bob says Banda Aceh's reconstruction has been brilliant, not least because it has also ended three decades of conflict.

A brief history lesson: From 1976 until 2004, Aceh was locked in a protracted civil war, between Acehnese Separatists (the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM) and the Indonesian Government.

Aceh was closed off, travel by foreigners largely forbidden, and a series of crackdowns - the most recent only months before the tsunami - resulted in an estimated 15,000 deaths, mostly civilian.

When the tsunami hit, both sides realised the fighting needed to end.

The Government opened up Aceh to allow aid and NGO workers the access they needed, while the rebels promised a safe environment on the ground.

This ceasefire resulted in the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding, signed in 2005. Aceh received a degree of autonomy; its Governor is a former GAM rebel spokesman.

Most agree the civil war is now a thing of the past. One of the greatest tensions - a sense that the wealth from Aceh's natural resources was being unfairly distributed by Jakarta - was no longer relevant with the billions of dollars being poured in to reconstruction. New roads, new houses, a new airport - Banda Aceh is better than ever before.

As McKerrow points out: "You go into a village today in Aceh, there's a school, there's a clinic, there's electricity, there's roads, houses that have toilets, running water, and the people are very well off compared to other parts of Indonesia, and that's why the peace is holding.

"And when I talk to women, I say, 'What would you do if your husband picked up a rifle and went to join one of the factions', and she would say, 'I would hit him on the head, because we are so well off today compared to what we were five years ago'."

"MONEY DOES everything here," says Muhsin, who has rebuilt his small grocery store, completely lost in the tsunami.

As well as rebuilding his own life and business, Muhsin has dedicated his spare time to working with orphans. He says while most Acehnese are happy, there are still problems.

There are those who have missed out and those who are homeless, sometimes simply because they weren't educated enough to fill out the required forms.

And as the reconstruction winds up, and the NGOs withdraw (only the UN and the Red Cross still have delegations in Banda Aceh), Muhsin fears the vacuum could be filled with a return to old grievances. "I think the problem can happen again in Aceh, like a snowball."

Worryingly, there have been three incidents of shots fired at Westerners in the past month, events unheard of in immediate post-tsunami Banda Aceh.

If there is hope for Banda Aceh, it is that the new livelihoods established under the reconstruction will continue to grow.

McKerrow points to a fisherman, who was already struggling with diminishing catches before the tsunami destroyed his boat. He now has land and is making a good living growing cocoa.

"We were given the conditions to build back better," he says.

For four years the Indonesian Government had a dedicated Tsunami Ministry, unprecedented for containing an anti-corruption unit.

While I had heard figures of up to 30 per cent "leakage" of funds, McKerrow says he would be "surprised if it was over 5 per cent". Of course, even that is still $400 million.

McKerrow also confirms Muhsin's story: people have missed out on houses, in some cases by putting their name forward, moving away to stay with relatives and returning too late and finding their house reallocated.

On the other hand, he says, "there were those people who got two houses, there were people who put their name down and got three houses ... there was a bit of thuggery going on".

Other projects have been ill-conceived from the get-go. About an hour's drive from Banda Aceh is Jackie Chan village, a settlement built from the millions of dollars raised by the Hong Kong action movie star.

It's too far for residents to drive for work, or supplies. Despite many being homeless, Jackie Chan village isn't an option, and at least half the settlement lies empty.

In the centre of Banda, the Tsunami Museum officially opened last month.

I have my own misgivings about it, not the concept but, at a cost of $10 million, the scale of this four-storey behemoth seems out of proportion to the lives of those around it, particularly with hundreds of families still living in squalid barracks.

On the other hand, if the museum and the Jackie Chan village are the worst examples of questionable management from an $8 billion aid project, it's not hard to see why McKerrow could say it's been brilliant.

Another explanation for the Tsunami Museum might be Banda Aceh's bid to become something of a tourist destination.

For the first time in its history, Banda Aceh has an international airport, officially opened this year - even if the only international arrivals at present are two budget airlines from Malaysia.

And the event which wiped Banda Aceh from the map is exactly what they hope will put them back on it.

THE PLTD Apung 1 is a diesel power generation plant. It's a ship, 2600 tonnes, more than 50m long and a few storeys high, all hulking steel.

What makes the Apung 1 different from most ships its size, is the fact it's in the middle of a field, kilometres from the nearest coast. It's a popular attraction for visitors, the site now complete with a small memorial garden and children's playground.

Once you've seen "boat in field" as local tourist operators call it, you can visit the much smaller "boat on house" - which is everything its name suggests.

It seems hard to believe people might plan an overseas trip around a few such attractions. Not only is it rather mawkish, there simply aren't that many of them.

However, at the same time as I am internally voicing my concerns, I meet a young family across from Malaysia for a few days, for exactly that purpose.

"Aceh is beautiful," says Rahmadhani, of the Aceh Culture and Tourism Agency. But when I ask him to expand, he struggles: "We have a lot of potential to show," he offers, before again talking generically about culture and beauty. "Aceh is safe, Aceh is convenient, Aceh is attractive," he concludes.

Putting aside the fact there's not a lot to do here, another impediment to attracting Western tourists will be more difficult to remedy: Aceh is the most conservatively Islamic province in Indonesia.

It's seems fairly relaxed compared to say, Afghanistan, but there's no beer to be found in Banda Aceh, and you can't wear your togs at the beach.

And rather than relaxing, Aceh's Sharia law provisions have recently been strengthened by the regional legislature to include the likes of death by stoning for adulterers.

One true attraction, the nearby island of Pulau Weh, has long operated as an exception to many of these rules.

When Aceh province was closed to all foreign visitors during the civil war years, it was still possible to arrive in Banda Aceh and be delivered to the Pulau Weh ferry by police escort.

Beer is available on the island courtesy of the local police chief, though not cheap by Asian standards, and it is possible to swim without being covered from head to toe - just don't expect the locals to join you. Boasting pristine dive sites among the best in the world, Pulau Weh attracts a steady stream of foreign visitors.

Ben Stokes and his partner Sarah Kemsley have started bringing groups of intrepid divers to Pulau Weh. Stokes says the Sharia law angle is played up by Western media, and while a special unit of Religious Police patrols Banda Aceh enforcing dress standards, particularly for young women, the rules don't apply to visitors.

"We have to be respectful but essentially as far as the Acehnese are concerned, Sharia law is not applicable to Western tourists," he says.

Totok, a local tourist operator puts it simply: "Aceh is majority Muslim. But our Muslim is different from Taleban."

While talking to Totok over another cup of strong Acehnese coffee - usually taken with condensed milk - I'm struck by how far the residents of Banda Aceh must have come in the past five years.

I ask about his experience with the tsunami itself and, again, he says it plainly. "When the tsunami came, everything was gone. My son, my daughter. It left two, me and my wife only. My office was also broken. Everything was lost."

Totok says the first couple of years after the tsunami, people "lost the spirit of life". But, he says, as more and more aid workers arrived from overseas, and the city was rebuilt, so were its people. His eyes fill with joy as he speaks of the new Banda Aceh, and how it has allowed people to once again "make the spirit of life".

"I think the kids are the most scarred," says McKerrow. "In the first year the kids had recurring nightmares of another wave coming in and wiping out their family, they survive and go to an orphanage - it's amazing how many nightmares are the same. But after 18 months, they subside, it's just a process of time ... And life goes on."

It's impossible to imagine how any of us would cope with what the Acehnese have been through in the past five years - an entire city destroyed, then rebuilt, unrecognisable.

Entire families killed, their whereabouts unknown.

An end to decades of bloody conflict, a restless peace. I'm in awe of the resilience of spirit I see everywhere.

"We have to be optimistic," says Rahmadhani, summing up in his hyperbolic fashion.

"We enjoy the peace today. Everyone is very busy. The economy is booming. Everyone is smiling."


10 comments:

Gollum said...

Bob

I saw a programme on television the other day about Aceh which featured the diving and showed some of the reconstruction work. I remember the tsunami well as we were in Singapore at the time and one of my daughter's school friends was killed in Thailand.

The Aceh diving looks pretty spectacular and much better than a lot of the sites that are touted to tourists around Indonesia. I was talking to a guy here in Riyadh the other day about the diving off Jeddah and he was saying that the authorities turn a blind eye to the dive operators who take tourists out into the Red Sea - you can have mixed groups, single women and so on. Maybe the Shariah only applies on land.

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Gollum

Interesting to read you saw a doco on Aceh recently. There will be a Discovery Channel doco shown around 24 December. It is a very good one.

The Shariah law is a little more liberal here so hopefully mixed diving is permissible. It is amazing what one can do under water.

Cheers

Bob

Jamie said...

Here's to the future of Aceh Bob, good on you for the contribution you have made!

I hope they can take the right paths.

And thanks for putting that great article up.

Bob McKerrow said...

Kia Ora Jamie

I just arrived in Banda ceh a few hours ago and it is always good to come back home.

So much good work done by so many good people.

Bob

Marja said...

Very inspiring to see the difference made in Aceh. It is indeed a miracle to see the risilence in people. I see that with the kids in the home too When you know what they have been true it is unbelievable how well they are doing.
What a waste that so much money goes lost on badly planned project. So much more could have done indeed.
It is indeed a bit difficult sometimes were the east meets the west. In Turkey you saw many tourist being very ignorant about the culture there making the people very uncomfortable. It aint easy
I wish you a great christmas season

Bob McKerrow said...

Thanks Marja. I the west, married east, and I know that it takes a lot to get it together. We got it together in the tsunami and I am proud of that.

Take care.

bob

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
I recall coming out of the Ruahine, having seen no one for 8 days, and finding out about the terrible tsunami in Aceh. That really stopped me in my tracks.
What an effort by so many, and what amazing people whom live there to put their lives and culture back together after such an event. I hope that greed does not overcome the good which has been done.
Happy holidays Bob, to you and to your lovely family there, and here in New Zealand. I hope you and the boys get up in the snow and have a White Christmas. Kia kaha my friend.
Rangimarie,
Robb

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Robb

It must have been a great shock to have come out of a long solo trip in the Ruahines, and to learn about the Tsunami. A huge tragedy.

When you look at the collective work done over the past 5 years it is unbelieveable what has been done. This uis due mainly to generous and caring people around the world who dug deep, and gave.
Thanks guys.

Bob

Damian Christie said...

Hi Bob,

Just found your blog - thanks for your kind words and for republishing my Herald piece - and most of all, thanks for your time and help with the article.

Best


Damian.

Bob McKerrow said...

Damian

It was a pleasure to work with you mate. The article was 'top shelf' and leaves a strong memory of the Tsunami for many. Bob