When the deadly waters of the Asian tsunami smashed into this fishing village in Indonesia’s Aceh Province four years ago, not one house was left standing. Now there are too many of them. Recovery has been uneven in the dozen countries hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, which killed more than 220,000 people. While some communities have rebounded and flourished on a multibillion dollar outpouring of aid, others have languished.
In Lam Tutui, 54-year-old villager Keuchik Baharuddin recalled how he heard the monkeys in the trees screaming wildly before the tsunami hit, killing his wife and all five of his children.
“I saw our village had been leveled to the ground,” he said.
One of only 75 people from the village of 545 to survive, Baharuddin has rebuilt a semblance of his old life in a gleaming new village, marrying a tsunami widow who has just given birth to a baby son.
So many houses have been built with aid that survivors are now making money on the side by renting them to tenants while other houses sit empty, he said.
In Aceh, which along with nearby Nias island was the region worst hit by the disaster, with at least 168,000 killed, reconstruction has been a qualified success.
Authorities have spent around US$6.7 billion of the roughly US$7.2 billion in aid pledged by donors, building nearly 125,000 houses and infrastructure from schools to roads and bridges, Indonesia’s Aceh-Nias reconstruction agency (BRR) said.
The BRR, which is set to wind up its mandate overseeing the local and international aid effort next April, has been praised for getting the job done with little of the corruption that routinely infects Indonesian government projects.
The recovery has also been aided by peace forged between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government in the wake of the tsunami’s devastation, ending a three-decade civil war that claimed 15,000 lives.
Concerns now are that as reconstruction ends — and the sugar-rush of foreign money dries up — Aceh will return to misery and possible instability. Unemployment, currently around 10 percent, is expected to rise and the economy to slow as the BRR wraps up its work, said Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM fighter allowed into politics as part of the peace deal.
“I never dreamed that we would be able to remove all Acehnese from hell and bring them to heaven. I just wanted to try to remove them from hell,” he said.
There are also fears unemployment among ex-fighters, currently estimated at around 20 percent, could lead to a rise in violent crime or clashes during elections in April.
Adding to potential woes is the fact that while aid has transformed the tsunami-hit coast, those living in inland areas devastated by the civil war have been left out, BRR head Kunturo Mangkusubroto said.
“The rural economy on the coastline that was hit by the tsunami is back, I can say that with full confidence. The rural economy in the hinterland that was affected by the conflict is not back,” he said.
While the tsunami helped end a war in Aceh, the fog of Sri Lanka’s dragging war with Tamil separatists has hampered efforts to rebuild devastated parts of the nation. Around 31,000 people died in the tsunami in Sri Lanka and around 10,000 still live in temporary camps.
The state auditor general in 2005 said only 13.5 percent of the US$1.16 billion committed to assist victims had been spent. There have been no government audits released since then.
Waste and bureaucratic bungling was underscored in October when the government destroyed more than five tonnes of rice and lentils donated by the World Food Programme for tsunami victims, as it rotted before distribution.
Mismanagement has also tainted the much smaller aid effort in Malaysia, which lost 68 people in the disaster and where government auditors have found mishandling of aid money that ended up in shoddy houses or fishing boats unsuitable for local waters.
In Thailand, where 5,400 people were killed — half of them foreign holidaymakers — tourism has bounced back, only to be buffeted by ongoing political turmoil.
The recent closure of airports in the southern province of Phuket and the capital Bangkok by anti-government protesters has led to a dip in arrivals, said Yiamsuriya Palusuk, the governor of Phangnga Province, one of five Thai provinces hit by the tsunami.