kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Aceh, a decade on

Some vibrancy has returned but many survivors are still preoccupied with just daily survival needs.

A SUNNY Sunday at the beach is lovely in the Aceh capital, and more and more visitors descend on the sands and sea in the afternoon. Girls pose for pictures in a row, their clothes covered in sand. Families enjoy grilled fish in the thatched open huts while babies have a grand time rocking in their swings brought from home and hung from the beams, sleeping to the sound of breaking waves and the breeze – a rarity in town.

Standing strong: A mosque is the only surviving building in Lampu’uk, a once-bustling beach town 20km west of hard-hit Banda Aceh. Before the area was turned into rubble by the tsunami, it was popular with tourists for its waves, clean white sand, grilled fish, and coconut drinks. — Photos: The Jakarta Post

This is where people, particularly women, can be carefree; a few are without their headscarves while others play in the water fully clothed, with no worries of the possibility of getting arrested even if their long clothes cling to their bodies when emerging from the water. Hardly anyone is wearing proper swimwear; even the burqini is tight-fitting and might be considered improper by a passing Syariah police officer.

These are the early days of the new Syariah penal code (Qanun Jinayah). It seems people are used to taking chances with the Syariah police, as they are determined to have fun, especially on the weekends.

The lawmakers and officials are busy making rules obsessed with “heaven and hell”, says one resident, while they enjoy themselves with trips to Jakarta and elsewhere, taking many breaks from restrictive Aceh “while the poor can’t go anywhere”.

The poor don’t go to the beach a lot either as reflected in the parking lots along Lampu’uk Beach, largely filled with SUVs big enough for entire families. Small eateries have become vibrant again here after they were rebuilt following the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that wiped out all stalls and surrounding buildings, one even named “Hikmah Tsunami” (the tsunami blessing).

The World Bank’s assistance programme was among the international aid provided for the food-stall owners on the beach.

The hikmah of the tsunami is constantly referred to in regard to Aceh, as after 30 years of war, it led to negotiations between the Indonesian Government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), facilitated by the Helsinki-based Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) under former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. His name and Helsinki are immortalised in ballads, such as that sung by an elderly singer during the recent annual Acehnese arts festival in Banda Aceh.

The happy sounds and sights of coastal villages such as Lampu’uk hide most scars of the war and the tsunami. It is neighbour to Lhok Nga, the site of high cliffs where a few locals survived the disaster as they were swept up and clung to tree branches.

Whole villages, a popular resort and the women’s prison were wiped out along with almost all their occupants. In the years of the war even weekends were not so full of visitors and swimmers, locals say, as Banda Aceh and its surroundings were among the war’s hotspots.

“People didn’t go out much. Residents, including police officers, would get shot for nothing,” says Iskandarsyah, an elderly pedicab driver. “The life of a chicken was worth much more then.”

Soldiers were more wary, he adds, going to work in sandals with their uniform and shoes in a bag. He was shocked, he says, coming home following the death of his mother in 1992 and witnessing the effect of military operations, after two decades working on ships in Bali, sailing to the shores of the United States, Africa and Japan. “Life at sea was much better,” he says.

After the 2005 Helsinki Agreement, for which the CMI received the Nobel Peace Prize, and which “left a sweet legacy for the Acehnese” from then president Susilo Bambang Yudhyono and his vice president Jusuf Kalla, a student says that new, unexpected problems arose.

A visitors observes a boat sitting on top of a house in Banda Aceh. The site, which memorializes the tsunami that devastated Aceh, has been turned into a tourists attraction.

Euphoria greeted the autonomy long-promised since the 1960s, which finally came into being, and Aceh became among the top-five recipients of the state budget. After almost 10 years of peace, says Samsidar, a former commissioner of the national women’s rights body from Aceh, things should have progressed much more.

But as other sources testify, the foremost daily concern is again the question of security, brought on by the widening economic gap rather than the Syriah police.

“It used to be the case that we all suffered together, nobody had anything,” says Farid Wajdi, rector of the Al Raniry State Islamic University, referring to both the war and the natural disaster. “Now many of those who feel entitled (to economic gains) are making demands,” some involving armed robbery. The disgruntlement is not limited to former GAM combatants.

“You couldn’t really tell back then”, who supported GAM and who did not, a resident says.

Ten years after the disaster and almost a decade after the end of the war, peace still looks fragile. The provincial and regional governments and local leaders are accused of neglect, or incompetence, or abuse of power, or all three, with suspicions of unfair and poorly targeted distribution of aid after the 2004 disaster.

Shortly after the disaster, tsunami victims were getting much more attention than war victims – despite the latter group explicitly being referred to in the 2005 Helsinki memorandum of understanding and despite claims that linger until today that many survivors of the disaster did not get their entitlements.

“Someone else got a boat and he wasn’t even a fisherman,” Rizal, a fisherman in Meulaboh, says.

Survivors of the disaster and the war say they have been too preoccupied with daily survival needs to continue demanding their rights.

Nowadays, the Acehnese are doing what they can for their families and their future.

Pedicab driver Iskandarsyah fishes out his wallet, which contains a picture of a lovely young woman. “I married late, my daughter just started college.”

She really aspires to go to the naval academy, probably inspired by her father’s tales. He hopes to help her achieve her dreams although he has doubts.

“I told her that life on a ship is not for a woman.” – The Jakarta Post

Tags: tsunami

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