Around Aceh, via the east coast across the Highlands to the west coast, to get a little insight in what this province looks like
My employer, IOM, is working throughout the province of Aceh, first and foremost on the post-tsunami program, which naturally concentrates along the coast: with the building of houses, rehabilitation of schools and clinics, and large and small scale economic stimulation projects an attempt is made, together with hundreds of other organizations, to build back better, a term coined by Bill Clinton. But a significant part of the IOM-specific program is also directed towards the peace efforts: we are not involved in the negotiations between the Indonesian government and the GAM, the guerrilla movement that has been fighting for Acehnese independence for some 25 years, but IOM facilitates development projects that need to convince the local population that peace actually improves their lives.
One of the most rewarding elements of my work – ask any humanitarian worker – should be to get out in the field, see what we are actually doing, talk to people who benefit from our projects, and listen to those who have suggestions, complaints or other comments; only by doing this we can learn how to improve what we are doing now, and how to do things better next time.
Sadly – ask any humanitarian manager – the demands of the office job, coordination meetings, donor meetings, government meetings, operations meetings, strategy meetings, staff meetings etc, are such that I don’t get out enough. For instance, I still regret that during the entire year that I have been working in Aceh I have never had the time to visit Nias, an island hit by an earthquake some months after the tsunami, for which my office also had a significant rehabilitation program.
Of course, visiting projects close to Banda Aceh is easy, can be done in a few hours, or half a day at most, but I had been thinking of a field trip visiting some of the programs further away, for some time. Finally, in November, I freed a full week for such trip, which easily takes me around most of the province, from what is called the East Coast – but in reality is mostly the northern coast -, to West Coast – which is also the southern coast, on account of Sumatra being oriented almost perfectly NW-SE -, all badly affected by the tsunami. To get from one coast to the other, one can cross the island through what is called the Central Highlands, precisely where the peace dividend projects have been initiated.
Starting of from Banda Aceh eastwards, the road initially follows the coast. The scenery is that of rice paddies, and colourful people with their typical conical hats working the fields. Two volcanoes dominate the skyline in the distance. Past Seulawah the road enters the hills, only to come down to the coast again at Pidie, also called Sigli. Traces of the old railway line from Medan to Banda Aceh can be spotted, in the form of a raised ramp for the tracks, or the occasional isolated bridge, with no roads linked to it. The tracks themselves have been removed, or stolen, or recycled, long ago.
Panta Raja, the fishing village at the mouth of a small river, is a little further along the coast, and so is Birueun, a slightly bigger town where there is accommodation. The countryside here is less attractive, farm lands, flat, but very fertile. In order to see the fishing boats in action, we got up early in Birueun. The boats are beached a little further south, but by the time we got there, they had already left. Yet, some of the boats were fishing near shore, interacting with groups of men on the beach pulling in the nets, which proved an interesting process to watch.
Further along the coast is Lhokseumaweh, a dull town mostly known for its offshore gas reserves and the associated gas processing plants onshore. Yet, every time we got off the main road into villages land inward, the scenery changed rapidly; any built-up was mostly traditional houses and other assorted forms of wooden shacks, invariably with the friendly atmosphere so characteristic of rural life in this part of the world. Of course, towards the coast, where the tsunami has destroyed every conceivable building and devastated the communities, the situation was quite different. Construction is in full swing, and those lucky enough to have been served first are now living in a standard 38 m2 house built by one NGO or another, often all of the same design, same colour – wiping out any authenticity in this area.
Not many NGOs will support the construction of religious buildings, which is perhaps the reason for one of the most peculiar things we experienced all around Aceh, the collections for mosques – although this doesn’t happen just in areas damaged by the tsunami, but everywhere else, as well. Some obstruction to force cars to slow down will have been installed, often empty drums on the road or so, and several people are then holding up carton boxes or cloth bags asking for donations to the construction. This cannot possibly make a significant difference, yet some dedicated individuals obviously spend a lot of time waiting by the side of the road. (NB: later I encountered the same collections in other parts of Indonesia, for mosques in Pulau Madura, but equally for churches in Northern Sulawesi, so this is much more widespread than I then thought, and clearly not disaster-related)
From Birueun we turned inland, to the district of Bener Meriah and the Central Highlands. Interestingly, here one also finds the occasional sterile villages, result of government relocation programs for conflict victims, those whose houses were burned down, either by GAM (the Acehnese independence movement) or by the Indonesian army.
In Takengon, at the lake with the same name, we stayed at the oldest hotel in town, offering a beautiful early morning view over the lake: strings of mist still trying to get away, huts on stilts, fishing canoes floating around in search of catch. In fact that was the only thing the hotel offered, as for the rest the place was pretty run-down, dirty carpets, cupboards falling apart and the filth of years of Indonesian officials visiting in the garden. Takengon is a lovely place, especially the older quarter, white houses with rusty corrugated iron roofs, and the ever present status symbol, the satellite dish. Smaller towns and villages along the main roads are dominated by wooden houses with balconies, the RuKo-type – Rumah-Toko, or house & shop combined, a favourite in Indonesian context – but more rural than the hundreds of concrete RuKos being built in Banda Aceh. A tour around the lake was nice enough, people cultivating rice along the shores, sometimes in tiny little paddies, and a truly rural lifestyle reflected in the villages.
From Takengon we took on adventure, and steered towards an as yet unknown road (unknown by the aid community, that is), to Meulaboh on the West Coast. This took us some 5 hours, the road being remarkably good, being asphalted in parts and graded for further work in others, despite the area being almost totally uninhabited. Initially, close to Takengon we still passed a few villages, focused mainly on coffee harvesting at this time of the year, but further into the mountains there was nobody anymore, with the exception of logging people, most likely illegal judging from the totally flattened, raped patches of land they left behind. The attraction is clear: primary jungle, huge trees, beautiful, and very impressive. And the screams of monkeys in the distance, far down in the valley, losing their habitat.
Down the mountains, we enter rice country again, with the occasional wooden village, but closer to the coast near Meulaboh everything had been wiped out, there was not a single building older than two years: the result of the tsunami. All construction was new, standard size, design, etc.
Some of the barracks, officially called TLC – temporary living centers – are still heavily populated, two years after the tsunami. They are in a poor state, stagnant water, stinking communal toilets and rubbish everywhere, yet nobody wants to do much to improve this for fear of creating permanent squatters. It is already difficult enough to get people out of the barracks, even if they have been given a new house. Many of the new communities do not yet have water and electricity connections, and besides, in the barracks food is free, an incentive to stay for many who still have to rebuild their livelihoods. To complicate matters more, other inhabitants of the barracks are people who formerly rented houses, or squatted. They officially do not qualify for new houses, and have no place to go, really, as house owners who may have had two or three houses in the past are now only given one – never mind that some do get multiple houses, because they managed to get themselves on multiple lists of beneficiaries, either through poor verification procedures or through bribing village officials charged with communicating housing needs to NGOs. Other barrack inhabitants are just opportunists, who have moved in, in the hope of getting something out of this, free food as a minimum, but perhaps a house at a later stage, who knows. Just to show some of the complexities of the rehabilitation work.
The Acehnese West Coast is the most somber terrain I have ever seen. Pretty, with spectacular beaches, in some areas still fringed by palm trees. But most of the coastal strip is very narrow, and stops abruptly 500 or 1000 m land-inwards, where the mountains rise up steeply. And this is where the tsunami hit hardest. In Calang, a small town between Meulaboh and Banda Aceh, nothing pre-tsunami exists, everything is new, the town was totally wiped out. Some 5000 people died here, and only 400 survived, mostly because they were somewhere else. Roads have disappeared; original bridges don’t exist anymore and have been replaced by metal Bailey structures, or just by wooden planks (which subsequently have been stolen again by people desperate for wood to rebuild their houses). House construction is frantically underway, finally, but somehow everything looks the same, standard, without character, no authenticity. The ultimate in creating equality amongst the people, well, at least amongst the house owners. All the way to Banda Aceh, an 8 hour drive from Meulaboh, this scenery does not change, new houses, schools, government buildings, everything is new. In places, there are no houses going up, yet there are traces of old foundations testifying that this area has been inhabited previously. The sad reality? There may be nobody left to build for.
Next: 05. the elections