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Six months after tsunami, rebuilding just now beginning

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—The people of this city's Kampung Jawa neighborhood know that billons of dollars have been pledged to repair damage from last year's tsunami. They just haven't seen any benefits yet.

The neighborhood remains a barren landscape as far as the eye can see. Thousands of survivors wait in tents and makeshift shacks, week after week, month after month, for someone to build them new homes. Government officials say it may take years.

"I've heard a lot of countries gave a lot of money, and so did the World Bank," said Zulkifli Abubakar, 53, sitting outside the shell of his house. "I also heard that houses are being built in some communities. But reconstruction isn't happening here."

Six months after the Dec. 26 tsunami washed across 11 countries on the Indian Ocean, the task of rebuilding is just now getting under way.

In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of people still live in tents. They survive on food handouts and aid-agency payments for work such as clearing debris—about $4 a day in Indonesia.

In Thailand, housing is less of a problem—the destruction affected relatively few homes—but the tsunami destroyed 120,000 tourism-related jobs, and United Nations officials worry that more could be lost if tourism doesn't bounce back soon.

Even in India, where survivors were quickly moved into temporary housing, controversy rages over the quality of that shelter and when permanent housing will be built.

The tsunami triggered an unprecedented outpouring of international aid, perhaps as much as $10 billion, though with so many groups raising money a precise figure is impossible to know. How that aid should be spent is still being determined in many places, amid fights over whether to rebuild in coastal zones and the magnitude of the task.

That has meant long waits for survivors, who want to start rebuilding their lives.

"Of course people are impatient," said Bo Asplund, the Jakarta-based U.N. coordinator for Indonesia. "They know how much money is there and they say, `Well, we've seen some of it in terms of relief and food and things like that, but what about our houses?'"

Nowhere is the scope of the reconstruction challenge more obvious than the west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province.

Just 100 miles from the epicenter of the massive earthquake that triggered the tsunami, Aceh was devastated by a wall of water that in some places reached 100 feet high and raced more than a mile inland. Entire villages disappeared with no warning. More than 500,000 people were left homeless.

Now, aid officials said, more than half live in tents and another 150,000 are in newly built barracks. The remaining 100,000 are thought to be living with relatives or in homes they've built themselves, often little more than shacks fashioned from scrap wood.

On a recent three-day journey down the west coast, from the provincial capital of Banda Aceh to Meulaboh, the devastation was still overwhelming, though there were signs of recovery.

A land route along the coast has been re-established. The Indonesian army erected temporary one-lane bridges to replace spans lost to the tsunami and plowed new dirt roads through nearby forests where the original roadway lies under water.

Some life has crept back into the bleak and muddy landscape. Scrubby brush and grass sprout around the ruins. Cows graze in what once were rice fields; domesticated water buffalo wallow in muddy pools left by rain.

Thousands of survivors, shedding their fears of the sea, have returned to their villages. They live in clusters of tents or cabins patched together on the foundations of their former homes.

Still, the 150-mile drive is bone-jarring, and vehicles must navigate knee-deep water when it rains. The ocean laps at some of the surviving paved sections, and stretches of dead mangroves—a tangle of leafless branches—wither in the sun.

The villages along the road are leveled, leaving only the concrete foundations of homes, shops and schools.

The Cot Jeumpa district, 25 miles south of Banda Aceh, offers a rare respite. There, where the road briefly climbs away from the shattered coastline and into the hills, several wooden houses are in various stages of completion, financed by $2.4 million from Roman Catholic relief agencies in Austria and Germany.

The houses are basic, 20-foot by 20-foot structures with sheet metal roofs and tinted louvered windows. But they're godsends for their occupants, who've lived in tents on the other side of the road for six months.

"It's like the difference between light and darkness," said Muhammad Hasan, 68, a farmer who moved into his new home two weeks ago. With a place to live, Hasan said, he feels ready to get on with his life, tending his chili peppers and cleaning his debris-strewn rice paddies.

On the outskirts of Lamno, a bustling inland town 15 miles further south, about 2,000 survivors from nearby coastal villages live in a sprawling barracks complex, one of several along the coast.

Enterprising residents have set up two coffee shops. A barber—whose business was swept away by the tsunami—cuts hair in an open-air shack.

But there's a sense of despair. Muktar Ali, a muscular 28-year-old in a tank top, stands outside one of the coffee shops, which is owned by his cousin. Once the owner of a profitable fish business, he lost his wife and all four of his boats to the tsunami. He lives alone and has no money to start his business again.

"I don't know what to do," he said.

Rebuilding is out of the question at Patek, 20 miles farther south. The land on which it stood is now under the sea.

The local government has given the survivors land to build a new village in the hills. But few aid workers venture into the remote area, where Indonesian soldiers and Acehnese rebels exchange gunfire.

"We have plans, but we don't have funds," said Agusamin Jafari, 48, a nurse who oversaw a clinic in Patek. Maybe an aid agency will come, she said. "But we haven't heard anything."

Further south, new bricks are piled neatly amid the ruins, a sign that housing construction will pick up in the weeks to come, and at Calang, a small city that was all but wiped away, shopkeepers have reopened along the road through town, selling vegetables and household items out of small shacks.

Beyond the new mosque, built on the foundation of the old one, blocks of simple barracks have gone up to house government offices. Across the flattened city, a few dozen homes have been built by those with the wherewithal to do so.

Bantarajuli, 49, a carpenter who uses only one name, whiles away an overcast afternoon on the porch of the small house he built from trees he collected from the ruins. The total cost: about $210, mostly to have the coconut trunks cut into planks.

His friend Syafruddin, also 49, wasn't as fortunate. His 14-year-old son, Fahrurazi, broke his leg in the tsunami. Syafruddin carried him on his back for nine days to get treatment in Banda Aceh, a trek of perhaps 90 miles through the hills.

By the time they returned to Calang three months later, most of the scrap wood had long been taken. Syafruddin has heard talk about houses for survivors. "I don't know if it's an empty promise," he said.

The road continues south from Calang for about 25 miles before it's washed out again, forcing a long and bumpy detour inland on village roads.

At the end lies Meulaboh, a medium-size city that the tsunami hit hard.

Ilyas Minin, 56, is among 16 people who've crowded into his brother's home. Though his brother never complains, Minin thinks he's imposed long enough. A couple of weeks ago, he started collecting scrap wood to build his own home.

"It's too long to wait for a donated home," he said. "I've lost patience."

It's a feeling that many share.

Nur Habibah, 32, is one. She and her two children fled Meulaboh for a relative's home 25 miles away, leaving her husband behind. Every few days she comes back to the wooden cabin her husband has assembled on the concrete foundation where their house once stood.

On a recent morning, she surveyed the ruins of her neighborhood.

"Half a year has gone by," she said, sighing, "and we're still like this."


(Moritsugu is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI-SIXMONTHS

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