Bitterness for Some Over Long Wait for Post-Tsunami Housing

Pray for the love ones
Banda Aceh, TAG - Today, the people of Aceh commemorate the most tragic day in our history with prayers, memories and visits to the mass graves that hold the unidentified remains of thousands of our loved ones, neighbors and friends. One center of the fifth anniversary ceremonies is the Ulee Lheue seaport, ground zero on the day the waves crashed into the province. To look at it today you might not immediately realize the tragedy that occurred here.

Prior to the tsunami, Ulee Lheue was a fishing village of some 1,500 people in the Meuraxa subdistrict of the city. Its roads were narrow and potholed, most of the simple houses were built from wood, children bathed in the nearby ocean.

Now there is a new seaport at Ulee Lheue, the destroyed homes have been cleared away and the newly paved two-lane road is smooth. Every weekend children swim in the new man-made lake and families gather at sunset to eat at snack stalls. The ocean’s waves are muted by large rocks that have been put in place to protect the coastline.

There is no denying the new seaport is attractive. The local government wants the area to become a tourist destination and a place to recall the tsunami. But there is some still unfinished business here and some of the original villagers feel left out.

When the waves crashed into the village, all but 500 residents were killed. Most of the survivors are now living in several new villages. However, two ramshackle temporary wooden barracks still remain along the new road to the seaport. They are home to dozens of tsunami victims who seem to have been overlooked in the reconstruction of the area. 

Ironically these people were among the first hit by the tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, but they have yet to receive any of the assistance promised them.

Mairia, 28, and her husband, Hendra Setiawan, 36, live with their family in one of the faded-pink barracks. Each family has an area about 5 x 4 meters, divided by plywood for privacy. Outside, plastic lines are used for hanging clothes to dry. Trash is piled up in the yard, flies circle the area. A few people have built chicken coops under the barracks, which are one meter off the ground. Children play nearby. 

Mairia and Hendra were married just 10 days before the tsunami. When the waves struck, she and most of her family members, including her mother, were at the beach, selling food to the usual crowd of Sunday morning visitors from Banda Aceh.

Mairia has two sons now, a toddler 18 months old and a 5-year old, but her mother, four sisters, a brother and five nephews were all lost to the tsunami; their bodies were never found. She looked for her family for months, traveling as far as Medan hoping to find them in one of the many refugee camps that sprung up after the tsunami displaced everything. Her search was in vain. 

After three months, she and her new husband decided to return to their hometown with several other people, living in tents until the government built these “temporary” barracks. Borrowing Rp 1 million ($110) from her surviving brother, Mairia started a small business selling noodles and grilled corn from a tiny stall on a dusty street as she waited for the new road, which finally opened a month ago, to be completed. 

“I never received any assistance from the government or an NGO,” Mairia said with tears in her eyes. “I started from zero. People said there was a lot of aid for tsunami victims, but I never got anything, other than food and clean water.”

Mairia and the other residents of the barracks know they will be relocated in the future. The city has constructed some tourism facilities and a new police station in the showcase area, but no new houses are to be built here. 

Mairia is worried that her family will not receive help in building a new home once they are resettled. “Our tears are of no use. Our voices are never heard,” she said.

The family was registered with the authorities after the disaster and subsequently declared eligible for housing in Labuy Hill, a resettlement site for tsunami victims about 15 kilometers north of the city center. But when they arrived there, they found the housing had been already occupied so they returned to the barracks.

Dozens of other families living in makeshift structures here and elsewhere have reported similar incidents in which housing promised them was stolen, forcing them to return to the temporary shelters. 

Iskandar, the head of the Aceh Sustainability Reconstruction Agency (BKRA), said that thousands of people had yet to receive promised housing in various districts. He said data on many victims still needed to be verified before the aid could be released.

The agency was established when the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR) ended its work on April 16. But now the stopgap BKRA office is to be closed at the end of year, leaving the fate of the tsunami victims still needing housing assistance uncertain.

Iskandar said he suspected that some of the residents in the temporary barracks were not really tsunami victims, despite claims by many of them that they have been listed in a document issued by the BRR approving their requests for aid.

The reality of the situation is unclear and difficult to determine. Iskandar is also concerned by reports that thousands of people have received more than one house, while others go wanting.

“They should return the extra houses so they can be used by other people,” he said. In other areas, he added, there were houses still empty, perhaps because they were of substandard quality. 

He noted that over 140,000 houses were built after the disaster, more than enough to fulfill tsunami victims’ housing needs. 

“It is strange if there are victims who say they have not received housing aid,” he said.

TAF Haikal, a local activist, blamed the BKRA for neglecting victims. 

“They are busy with other issues that are not within the principal mandate of the agency, like preparing the future blueprint for Aceh, the usefulness of which is still in doubt,” he said.

“The BKRA should help these people stuck in barracks and confiscate houses from those who received more than one unit,” he said. “It is sad that after five years there are tsunami victims who live in rotten barracks.”

Haikal is himself a victim of the disaster. His wife and two children were killed in the tragedy. He said he had also missed out on housing aid. 

“It is ironic and disheartening since many parties have praised the extraordinary success of Aceh’s reconstruction and rehabilitation, but there are still victims living in barracks,” said Haikal, who has remarried and started a new family. “One indicator of success would be if all victims received the help they are due.”

To commemorate the anniversary the BKRA is holding a photo exhibition on reconstruction and a cultural show at the new Tsunami Museum. The museum, established by the BRR at a cost of Rp 89 billion, is still empty and was only opened for the memorial event.

The ceremony also included a visit to mass burial sites, the largest of which is near Banda Aceh airport and is the size of two football fields. 46,718 victims are buried there.

Mairia and Hendra decided not to attend any official commemoration ceremonies. Instead, the couple marked the occasion with a visit to a mass grave near Baiturrahim mosque to pray for Mairia’s mother and other family members. The mosque withstood the tsunami, and has now been completely renovated. The mass grave there holds the bodies of 14,264 tsunami victims.

Mairia has no idea where the bodies of her family are.

“Although I do not know where they are buried, I just want to pray for them,” she said. []

Bitterness for Some Over Long Wait for Post-Tsunami Housing Bitterness for Some Over Long Wait for Post-Tsunami Housing Reviewed by Nurdin Hasan on December 27, 2009 Rating: 5

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