Mon, Dec 19, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Thousands of tsunami survivors still in tent camps

ONE YEAR ON Despite significant aid sent to help with reconstruction, the scale of the disaster left many aid agencies struggling to cope, and survivors must simply wait

By John Aglionby  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

This picture taken on Dec. 2 shows a family having their lunch inside their tent at a camp in Banda Aceh.


Seven Acehnese young men living in a rough, homemade wooden shack on stilts in the village of Lampuuk, 30km from the northern tip of Sumatra, are learning self-sufficiency the hard way. All are the only members of their immediate families to survive last year's Dec. 26 tsunami -- 6,000 out of 7,000 villagers died -- and rather than be packed off to distant relatives they decided to band together and form their own "family."

"We've known each other for a couple of years, so were friends already," said Maulida, 25, the oldest and unofficial head of the family. "We thought it would be nicer to live together, so then we could help each other."

After living in a school for three months and then a tent near the village mosque -- the only building that survived -- for another six, they built their three-room home out of debris scavenged from the rice fields that remain uncultivated. It lets in heavy rain and they don't have mattresses, but they are thankful not to be among 67,000 Acehnese still living in tents a year after the 9.2-magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami that wreaked havoc across the Indian Ocean.

More than 132,000 died in Aceh and neighboring North Sumatra province. About 37,000 remain missing. Like the hundreds of thousands of others across Aceh, the seven orphans survive on food handouts, cash-for-work schemes and sharing what little resources they have. Maulida and 19-year-old Mawardi are constructing a widows' home, financed by a Dutch organization; the rest are at school.

Several aid organizations, including Plan International, which introduced me to the orphans, are active in Lampuuk, but for most of the survivors life is a constant struggle. Permanent housing is on the way, the orphans have been told, although -- in a classic case of the poor communication bedeviling the recovery process -- none of them can remember the aid agency responsible for building them.

"We've been told they will be eight-by-seven meters and ready in six months," Yusnezal said. "We are each going to get one, but we plan to still live together. I don't know anything else, so we can only wait."

Waiting is a skill the tsunami survivors are practised at and it will come in handy in the months, probably years, to come. Reconstruction is likely to take at least until 2009.

Is it fair that the Acehnese will have to wait that long, and why hasn't more been done already? To try to find some answers I retraced the steps I took in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, going first to south-west Thailand and then to Aceh in Indonesia to compare the two nations' progress.

Tsunami, what tsunami? That's the reaction of some tourists in the Thai resorts of Phuket and Khao Lhak, says Andrew Kemp, a Briton whose five-star resort, the Sarojin, was devastated by 10m-high waves three days before it was due to open. It has just started welcoming guests.

"We're already getting people who don't know anything happened, which is a great sign," he said.

Tourist arrivals are some 60 percent down on last year but are steadily climbing and visitors who have dared to return are usually glad they have because the atmosphere is not sad; indeed many locals seem to take heart from them.

But all is not well in Thailand's reconstruction program. Virtually every local I spoke to said the government played virtually no role in consultation or co-ordination.

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