A journalist ponders lives changed forever

By Nani Afrida

Special to The Seattle Times

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — It has been one year since the tsunami devastated Aceh.

What Aceh looked and felt like when the tsunami struck, and the panic of the people around me are still fresh in my mind. The sad faces of those looking for missing family members stick in my memory. And like any other survivor, I’ve had to accept the fact that half of Banda Aceh disappeared in the huge waves.

As a journalist for five years, I know every corner of Banda Aceh and the surrounding landscape, the places that I scour every day to gather news.

A few hours after the tidal wave, I stood alone at the edge of the city, staring at the vast expanse of seawater. There was no sight of the houses that once stood closely in a row, and familiar roads had vanished. Everything was flattened by the giant waves.

In that moment, I realized that the lives of the Acehnese, including me, had changed forever.

I never stop expressing my gratitude to God for allowing me to survive and witness the events after this disaster.

But working as a local reporter in a disaster area isn’t as easy as one might think. Jakarta and foreign journalists might find reporting on such a calamity to be a goldmine of stories.

For me, as an Acehnese, the job has become a burden.

In the last several months, I’ve heard the same stories over and over: The sorrow of survivors continuing to search for their missing loved ones, their futile queries about houses or jobs, their worries about an uncertain future.

Two of the questions I hear most frequently are “When shall we get our houses?” and, “Why are we still living in tents while there are quite a lot of nongovernmental organizations in Aceh?”

There are more than 500,000 homeless people in Aceh today. Most live in tents or barracks or stay with relatives. One year after the tsunami, only 16 percent of the planned 200,000 new houses have been built. Only God knows when the remaining ones will be built.

The patience of those living in makeshift tents is wearing thin. Worse still, they feel their misery has been exploited by many parties.

In this case, their displeasure and distrust are not only aimed at the government and relief workers, but also journalists. I don’t often feel offended or angry by their reaction.

But at times, when I interview them in their tents, their words hurt my heart.

I know perfectly well that there have been positive changes since the tsunami. The Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed a peace deal to end 30 years of fighting. Martial law was lifted, opening up Aceh to the world. That has been a blessing for all of us.

But too little has changed in the lives of the tsunami victims.

The less fortunate are still in tents, having to put up with the unfavorable effects of the rainy season — wet roads, malaria mosquitoes and dirty water. Some tents have begun to wear out.

The luckier ones live in barracks. Each barrack measuring 2×2 square meters must accommodate two to three families, and people sleep packed like sardines. There are few regular jobs.

Relief groups organize work-for-cash programs where each person is paid 35,000 rupiah — about $3.50 per day — but these aren’t steady. And the government’s monthly allocation of 90,000 rupiah — around $9 — does not come on a regular basis.

Everything is costly in Aceh now, with prices pegged to the U.S. dollar, the currency used by foreign-aid organizations. Rice, for example, is now two or three times more expensive than before the tsunami.

Many survivors have begun to show their disgust at outsiders, foreign or otherwise, who drive about in luxury cars while they sit despondently in their tents. They have little confidence in the Indonesian government, believing graft keeps them from receiving the help they deserve.

I sometimes feel frustrated because I believe that the situation in Aceh will hardly change.

I have met Nurleili, a 23-year-old girl whose right leg had to be amputated. I have met Mar, 54, a housewife who is still staying in her tent. I have met Hasra, a 23-year-old homeless victim now staying in a barrack.

When I came to them for a story about tsunami victims, the three asked me the same question: “Do you think our fate will change for the better after you write about us? Many have written about us, but our plight remains.”

Now, though a year has gone by, I feel as if the disaster took place just yesterday.

It seems like only a short time ago that I saw the residents in the Meuraxa district sitting on their terraces while it was raining, eating fried bananas with their families. Now, these people — their families torn apart — sit in wet tents counting the passing days.

I still have fresh memories of a time before the tsunami, when residents of the Kemukimam Lamdingin would smile hospitably and ask me to drop by when I passed their houses at night. Nowadays, they are busy each night drying out their tents from the flood that rushes in with the high tide.

It is too difficult to smile.

At these moments, I realize that I long to see Aceh as beautiful as it was before disaster struck, at a time when people still smiled.

Nani Afrida is an Acehnese journalist

who writes for the Jakarta Post

and other publications.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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