Acehnese community’s ties help it start over one year after tsunami

KEUDE PANGA, Indonesia – Baby banana palms and papaya trees nudge through the sandy earth at this coastal village in Aceh flattened by last year’s tsunami. Nature springs back to life quickly in the Indonesian tropics, but people here are only gradually clawing back their decimated lives.

"It will take a generation, maybe longer," says Murdani, a 33-year-old who lost his wife, child, parents — and his rice processing plant — in the fury of the walls of water that smashed into Keude Panga on December 26, 2004.

"There are only a few of us left, and only some of us have remarried. It takes time to have children. And from the economic perspective, it’s going to take time to recover."

Nobody is really sure, but local officials say that just 489 people out of 1,233 residents managed to scramble to safety when the tsunami struck this village of mostly fishermen and farmers.

It took a month to collect the bodies and entomb them in three mass graves, but most were never found.

All 401 houses, six schools and the village mosque were obliterated, with the mosque’s cleansing pool alone managing to withstand the waves’ onslaught, residents say.

"From every aspect, we are starting from zero again," Murdani, who uses only one name, says as he perches on one of the shabby car seats placed outside the shack serving as the office for the temporary mosque nearby.

Nearby the wave-battered hulk of a van, their likely source, lies upturned.

Keude Panga is located some 200 kilometres (125 miles) along Aceh’s west coast from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, a bleak stretch of murky abandoned rice paddies, still strewn by the sun-bleached trunks of coconut palms.

Like many here, Murdani, who was swept from his home to the hills three kilometres away, has yet to recover his livelihood.

"I want to reopen my business, but I don’t have the cash," he says.

The village’s imam, Teungku Ismail Hussein, 54, was elsewhere when the tsunami hit, and returned a month afterwards to survey the devastation.

"I encouraged people to start praying because some were not. They said there was no azan," he says, referring to the Muslim call-to-prayer that typically echoes through Acehnese — and most Indonesian — communities five times a day.

"They were so traumatised then they didn’t want to think about the mosque."

Now, chimes in 33-year-old Nassir Amin, more people are praying at the mosque than before — a refrain heard often in the staunchly Muslim province, where more than 168,000 people were killed or remain missing after the disaster.

"Maybe it’s because it was a warning from god," he says soberly.

Dozens of outsiders who had moved away from the village have come back to help, Amin adds.

One returnee is teacher Marzalinta, 39, who has replaced one of the six out of eight teachers killed at her school. Of the 130 students, 37 were killed, with most survivors hailing from other villages.

Sitting on the floor of her recently-finished home, which her family built themselves, she says the children have trouble concentrating in their makeshift schools.

"Before we could control the students to study seriously but now because we are under tents, they get distracted," she says, adding that they still get nervous when it rains or another quake hits.

Budin Muhi, 45, and Nurdin Sharif, 35, are two of the village’s 70 surviving fishermen, who now rely on catching shrimp for most of their income.

In one of the rebuilt houses here, a stark concrete affair furnished with plastic chairs and little else, they explain that donors have given the village five two-man boats.

In a show of the community’s strong ties, Sharif says that the profits from this season, which begins this month and runs until May, will be ploughed straight back into buying more boats.

"We will fish and if we catch fish, we will sell them. And with the money we make, we plan to buy new boats. If we can buy a new boat, that’s two more fishermen who will have work," he explains.

Outside, the village’s winding paths still scattered with tsunami debris are buzzing with activity, as workers scurry to and from construction sites and the thudding of hand-held hammers rings out.

About 300 houses are planned for the village but only about two dozen are finished so far, completed by one of the many non-government organisations working in Aceh.

Villagers are grateful, but complain that rebuilding has been slow and house quality substandard.

"All of the tents are almost broken now so we need to move quickly," the imam says.

And life does move on. Of about 100 widowed men, 20 have remarried, including the village chief, 65-year-old Ibrahim Haji, who lost his wife, child and grandchild to the waves.

"A month after I came back, the older people in the village told me that I had to marry this woman, as she would be best for me," the spiky-haired chief says at his rebuilt coffee-shop, where men sip steaming glasses of Aceh’s famed coffee.

They prepared a feast for the day he wed, to another tsunami widow.

Back near the mosque, Murdani says that the spirit of the village has returned: "If one is sick, we are all sick. If one eats, we all eat."

And it’s stronger than before.

"It’s better, in every way, because we are all the same now — there are no rich people and poor people. For sure, we are all poor now."

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