As survivors of Haiyan — November’s super typhoon in the Philippines — slowly put their lives back together, the rest of Asia has been marking the anniversary of another disaster.
Shortly after Christmas nine years ago, a huge tsunami swept across the region, killing at least a quarter of a million people.
Some of the worst damage was in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where whole villages were swept away by a wall of water so powerful it picked up ships and left them several miles inland.
Poverty is still widespread in the province. But nine years on from the tsunami, the devastation left in its wake has given way to reconstruction of housing and infrastructure, a peace deal between separatists and the Indonesian government, and some economic progress.
In the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, the Acehnese are proud of the fact that their province is among the first places — if not the first place — Islam arrived in Southeast Asia, brought not at the point of a sword but by Muslim traders from the Arabian Peninsula.
The Acehnese say they are, hands down, the most stubborn people in Indonesia — and they wear it like a badge of honor. When the Dutch colonial invaders came, the Acehnese fought a hard battle against them. And for several decades before the tsunami, Acehnese separatists fought another hard battle against a brutal occupation by the Indonesian army. That stubbornness — and resilience — helped the Acehnese survive the tsunami, too.
The Sulawah Golf Club is a few miles down the road from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. It’s in the seaside town of Lhoknga, which was made famous after the tsunami by stark photos of the local mosque — surrounded by a sea of debris — that came to symbolize the terrible destruction brought by the wave of water. But that was nine years ago.
Lhoknga has been rebuilt, including the golf course, though the golfers grumble it’s not what it used to be, owing to saltwater damage to the fairways and greens. But the course is packed, with Acehnese and Malaysian tourists, and the nearby road is lined with tidy houses built with help from aid groups.
Sabari — who goes by one name — lives next to the golf course. He flags down passing foreigners at every opportunity he sees, waving a framed photo of himself posing with former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Along with former President George H.W. Bush, Clinton came to Lhoknga shortly after the tsunami to help raise money for the aid effort.
Sabari lost his wife and daughter to the tsunami. But all he can talk about is meeting Clinton. He is sweet enough, but seems just a little bit off. A woman who lives nearby says that he has been that way since the tsunami. The result of trauma, she says, adding that there are many people in the area like that.
But there are many more who’ve moved on.
A Post-Tsunami Peace Deal, A Better Future
The crescent-shaped, white-sand beach at Lhoknga is impossibly beautiful. It’s popular with families who come from nearby Banda Aceh. The women wear headscarves; the children play volleyball in the sand. The nearby fish shacks are packed on weekends. It’s a very different Lhoknga than the former U.S. presidents saw.
Firda Al Fata, 30, is a college graduate who worked with several nongovernmental organizations after the tsunami. “For people who still live, they have a better future than they thought before the tsunami came,” she says.
“For short term, of course, this is a really bad thing,” she says. “But for the long term, there are many, many things good happen here.”
Chief among them: an end to the long-running conflict between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian military. The tsunami served as a catalyst for a peace deal between the two sides, and greater autonomy from Indonesia.
Rina Meutia, a former disaster risk specialist with the World Bank in Washington, calls it “a blessing in disguise.”
Meutia, who has a master’s from the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, also spent time working for the U.N. in East Timor. Now, she is running for a seat in the local Parliament.
She says it’s hard to overestimate just how bad it was before the tsunami during the Indonesian occupation, when the army vigorously enforced a 6 p.m. curfew.
“You get scared, you don’t know what’s going on next; the next morning you go to school, you see so many buildings burned or destroyed,” Meutia recalls. “So, to have this kind of peace, you can go out even at 11 at night to grab a coffee, that’s such a great feeling. It’s a blessing to have peace. You have no idea — not to live in fear, that’s the best thing ever.”
A Successful Reconstruction
Banda Aceh is awash in new cars, motorcycles and cellphone shops — all indicative of the trickle-down benefits billions in aid money brings. But nine years on, the aid workers are gone, the money drying up. And the greater political autonomy hasn’t translated into real economic progress for many here, especially those in the rural areas and even though Aceh is rich in natural resources.
“Out of 33 provinces in Indonesia, we are the fourth in terms of how rich we are in income per capita. But at the same time, the number of poor — head count — we are No. 5,” says Saiful Mahdi, a senior lecturer at Aceh’s Syiah Kuala University. “So we are the fourth-richest but also the fifth-poorest in the country.”
The long-running conflict, he says, stifled development. And he says the local government could do a lot better in terms of allocating resources to help improve livelihoods. Indifference, ineptitude and corruption are all contributing factors, Mahdi says.
But it’s still early days for the newly autonomous region. Mahdi, along with many others, thinks the relief effort and reconstruction that followed were extraordinarily successful. Though they agree it could have been even better — among them, Patrick Daly, a researcher at the National University of Singapore.
“I think the first three years could have been a lot more effective and it could have been a lot less internationalized,” he says.
Lessons For The Philippines, Beyond
Daly has been studying Aceh for the past nine years. He says the Philippines — where the powerful typhoon Haiyan hit in November — could learn from mistakes made here. He says projects in Aceh worked better once they were transferred to local partners. That will probably be the case in the Philippines, too, he says.
“In the Philippines, which has a rich history of civil society engagement and NGO work, I would say, empower them. Let them make decisions from the onset about planning; give them real responsibility to determine spending and how to allocate budgets and let them determine the priorities,” Daly says. “You’ll find projects will probably be more effective and more likely to last after the aid dries up.”
But for a province reeling from decades of brutal conflict — and then the tsunami — Aceh could be doing a lot worse. Back at the beach in Lhoknga, local taxi driver Nasir Mohammed digs into a delicious-looking fried grouper at one of the fish shacks.
After the tsunami and post-conflict, Mohammed says he has had a chance to make money — and he’s used it well. He has two cars for ferrying tourists and businessmen to and from the airport, and the golf course. And he has three sons he says will all go to university — something no one in the family has ever been able to do.
Yes, the tsunami was terrible for the victims, he says.
“But who am I to question God’s will?” he says. “Today’s Aceh is better.”