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Tsunami ruins economy in Indonesian province

Herey Warmadi survived last month's tsunami by climbing to the roof of his motor parts shop. Now tears spring to his eyes at the memory of filthy water and muck filling the place where he earned his living for 42 years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Herey Warmadi survived last month's tsunami by climbing to the roof of his motor parts shop. Now tears spring to his eyes at the memory of filthy water and muck filling the place where he earned his living for 42 years.

Asked how he will get by, he was at a loss to say. "I only count on the money in my pockets," he replied.

Beyond the horrific toll it took in human lives, the tsunami delivered a brutal economic blow to a region that was already one of Indonesia's poorest. Boats were smashed, stores filled with muck and fields turned to wasteland.

The United Nations estimates 500,000 jobs were lost in Aceh province, where damage was heaviest. More than 115,000 people were killed in Indonesia, most in Aceh, on Sumatra island's west coast, near the epicenter of the powerful undersea earthquake that caused the monstrous waves.

The Dec. 26 disaster left survivors with little hope of finding work. The vital fishing industry has been wiped out along much of the coast and in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and the region's main center for trade, the vast majority of stores remain shuttered.

"It's impossible to find money in Banda Aceh now," said Ramadhan Abdullah, 22, squatting next to a small basket of salted fish he was selling in the Lambaro village market, just outside the city, which had a pre-tsunami population of 223,000.

"There's no place to sell the fish and there's no place to get them because the sailors were swept away in the tsunami," said Abdullah, who is living in a refugee camp because his house was ruined.

Meanwhile, costs have soared because of the difficulty of transporting goods. The waves washed away many roads and ports in Aceh, which even before the disaster was isolated by a decades-long war between separatist rebels and the central government.

Warmadi says he needs at least $98,000 to reopen. He hopes the government will give him a loan.

The motor parts vendor employed four people at his store in Banda Aceh's once-bustling central market. While some of the city's street markets have reopened, the main market remains a muddy, foul-smelling maze of rubble and gutted shops such as Warmadi's.

The apartment over the shop where he lived with his family was spared by the waves but looted in the disaster's chaotic aftermath. Three weeks later, scavengers still pick through the muck, but there's little left worth taking. Vendors have been displaced to Lambaro, where prices are depressed because people have little money to spend and the competition for customers is stiff.

Farmers face the same bleak outlook as fishermen and traders; their fields, flooded with salt water, won't support crops for years.

The area's little heavy industry was also hit hard. In Lhoknga village, outside Banda Aceh, a waterfront cement factory that employed hundreds of people, was badly damaged, a 150-foot-long coal barge and tug boat deposited on the road in front of it.

The Asian Development Bank warned the tsunami could impoverish 2 million people across the southern Asian nations it battered, half of them in Indonesia. "The poverty impact of the tsunami will be enormous," said Ifzal Ali, the bank's chief economist.

Experts say a big infusion of reconstruction cash would be the best way to get the economy going.

With U.N. money, the government has hired 300 tsunami homeless to clear debris from hospitals and schools. It plans to expand the program to 3,000 people within months, although that's less than one percent of the more than 600,000 who lost their homes.

Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said officials were planning a big jobs program for Aceh, including reconstruction and agricultural work, but gave few details.

Chatib Basri, a government economics adviser, said Indonesia needed international aid to fund such a plan. He said it would take four to five years to get Aceh's economy back to where it was.

One sector largely spared was oil. Aceh is rich in it, but the profits go straight to Jakarta, stoking resentment in the province.

For people who have already lost loved ones and homes, the economic hardship seems cruel.

"I have nothing," said Syamsiah, 65, who lost her husband and son and was selling damaged batik shirts and dresses in Lambaro to help support her six grandchildren. "I sell this just to get a little money for eating. ... It is not enough."