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In Aceh, anniversary brings wave of memories

After a year, people in 13 nations hit by the Dec. 26, 2004,  Indian Ocean tsunami struggle to move on, as thoughts of lost loved ones intrude into daily life.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Flowerpots have begun to brighten porches here. Fishermen are back at sea. Eighteen people in this seaside village have remarried, and seven women are pregnant.

Signs of routine life have returned to this village, once home to 1,350 people but reduced to 257 by the Indian Ocean tsunami a year ago. Most of the survivors were men, fishing or tending crops in the hills while their wives and children close to shore died.

Much has been lost in Lamteungoh and all of Aceh province, where an estimated 167,000 people were killed in the area hit hardest by the tsunami, which pummeled coastal communities in a dozen countries. But people here are taking solace from the security that comes with peace. For the first time in a generation, they do not fear military checkpoints or ransom demands by rebels. A 30-year conflict between the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement ended with a peace accord on Aug. 15, partly as a result of both groups setting aside differences after the tsunami to work on reconstruction.

"This is what the Acehnese people have always dreamed of -- peace," said Marwadi, a fisherman and preacher whose new wife is two months pregnant. Not long ago, he said, soldiers would barge into his house, accusing him of supporting the rebels, demanding to see identification. "Now, there's no one checking our ID," he said. "We are free to go anywhere."

Waves of destruction
On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake launched the tsunami that killed an estimated 223,500 people and left 1.8 million others homeless. Today, in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, fewer than one-fourth of the homes that need to be rebuilt are completed or under construction. In Indonesia, by far the worst hit, more than 60,000 people are still in tents during the monsoon season and several hundred thousand more are in barracks or with relatives, waiting for new homes. Pledges of aid reached a record $13.6 billion, but only a fraction has been spent. In Thailand, where lucrative beach coasts were damaged, land disputes have slowed recovery. While peace has been restored in Aceh, a similar move in Sri Lanka to make peace with separatist rebels appears near collapse.

A reporter returned to Lamteungoh last week, after having visited in January, a month after the tsunami. Despite the enormous obstacles to rebuilding after the largest disaster relief effort in history, people were trying to recapture the rhythms of life. But it is not easy. Memories intrude, said the survivors, who recalled a child's hand slipping away or a wife falling to her death.

The grave where Baharuddin, the village leader of Lamteungoh, buried his 11-year-old daughter a year ago is not far from his temporary wooden home.

"Do you remember there used to be dead bodies here?" Baharuddin said, recalling when he and his men buried 300 corpses in three days. He pointed to the foundation of a house being built for a villager. "We moved them and buried them over there."

On a recent rainy afternoon, Baharuddin, whose wife and five children were killed by the tsunami, reminisced how he and his son would cut the grass in their field. "On this kind of day, we would go find food for the cow and play around in the barn," he said.

Recovery seems incomplete
All around him, construction workers were hammering roofs and laying bricks. By next spring, he said he expects there will be 180 new houses in the village. But his mind was elsewhere -- in the field, in the barn, with his family. "I don't want to let go of the memory," said Baharuddin, who like many people in Indonesia uses only one name.

"What's the point of peace if you don't have a family?"

Others are hoping to make new memories. Saleha was married in April and is expecting her first child in February. She is 18, with soft eyes, resting on a bench in comfy teddy bear pajamas. Her new house will not be ready in time for the birth, but she is hopeful that she and her husband, a bus conductor, will build a decent life. "With God's will," she said gently, "it will be better now."

As the people of Aceh go about their days, the reminders of the tsunami are always present. A 150-yard-long, four-story-high ship that once generated electricity is now beached amid houses in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, a reminder of the terrifying wall of black, oil-slicked, debris-laden water that swept people to their deaths.

Shoulder-high swamp grass has softened what was once an angry wasteland of mud and rubble. Wreckage is slowly being cleared. The U.N. Development Program alone has removed enough waste to fill three football fields 10 yards high with debris.

Widespread rebirth
Every day, children in uniforms, the girls in white head scarves, walk to and from school in villages across Aceh. Officials said 335 schools have been or are in the process of being built. More than 1,100 new teachers have been trained. Some people who have new houses ready are waiting for the school year to finish before moving their families, even if it means staying longer in barracks. In Lamteungoh, a new Islamic school, a madrassa, has been built.

On a recent afternoon, an economic recovery workshop was being conducted in Lamteungoh's rebuilt open-air mosque. The participants included several former rebel fighters, who watched the workshop leader intently, scribbling notes on "human resources" and "capital availability" in their tablets.

"We've now returned to society," said Bustami Ajun, 29, a husky former combatant in a green T-shirt and jeans. "We need capital to start up businesses and a new life. I want to open a construction business."

Former rebel fighters are now helping repair the west coast highway, driving for international aid workers and working for the government reconstruction agency. Villagers are beginning again to tend coffee and clove fields in the hills, once the rebels' hideouts.

But the peace pact is only four months old and both sides are wary. The rebels, most of whom lack jobs, have turned in 840 weapons, fulfilling their pledge to disarm. The last nonpermanent government soldiers are expected to withdraw by year's end.

"The peace deal should help reconstruction," said Wardah Hafidz, coordinator for Uplink, a nongovernmental group helping Lamteungoh and 22 other villages to rebuild. "I hope both sides will be true to their commitment."

Foreign aid fuels reconstruction
Lamteungoh is better off than some villages: Its people live in temporary wooden houses and aid continues to flow. Four permanent homes, built by GTZ, a German nongovernmental group, are nearly finished. The U.S. Agency for International Development has paid villagers to clean their fields. Pugar, an Indonesian relief group, and Al Amin, a Muslim aid group, have given boats. The French group, Secours Populaire Francais, built an ice factory to keep the fish fresh for market. CARE supplies rice.

Baharuddin cites nongovernmental groups and foreign governments first and foremost, not the Indonesian government, for bringing relief aid.

The village's good fortune owes partly to Baharuddin's initiative. In the first weeks after the tsunami, while camped in the elementary school that sheltered his villagers, Baharuddin beseeched district officials for help.

When the Indonesian government's public works agency insisted earlier this year that people not rebuild within about two miles of the coast, Baharuddin told an official that his village would not move. "Even if a tsunami came twice a week, we will stay here forever," he said he told the official. "This has always been our land."

The government Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, which was established in May, rescinded the policy.

‘There’s no place like home’
A little less than a year ago, Marwadi, the fisherman, saw no hope and no future. He had lost his wife, three young daughters and big house. "It's all gone," he had said then, walking through churned-up, foul-smelling earth.

Last week, Marwadi, 40, said in an interview that life was very different now. "At the very least, someone cooks for me," he said, a twinkle in his eye. "My life is better organized. Someone does the laundry."

"There is a saying," Marwadi said, seated cross-legged on the floor of his one-bedroom shack elevated by stilts. "Though it be raining gold in another village and raining rocks on your own, there's no place like home."

His new wife, Yeni, a thoughtful, bespectacled woman of 32, teaches at the madrassa. She has a college degree. So did her husband, the former village chief, killed by the tsunami. Marwadi has no college education, but Yeni said she was impressed by his intelligence. While other tsunami refugees went out and came back with donated clothes, Marwadi returned with used books -- often about religion.

"My life is calmer now," she said. "For an Acehnese woman, life is not easy when you're a widow. People are always asking questions -- where you are, where are you going." The many widowers in the area constantly proposed marriage, she said.

Now that she's married again, Yeni said, men let her be. "It's somehow liberating," she said.

She has even begun to think of the future again. "I feel more optimistic now because I will have children. That's why I chose to be married. That's why I chose Marwadi."

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.