Aceh: Empowering tsunami victims to rebuild their lives
11 November 2005
by Deborah Tomasowa

A tsunami survivor in Meulaboh is determined to rebuild her community. (Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps)A tsunami survivor in Meulaboh is determined to rebuild her community. (Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps)
Aceh, Indonesia: I find myself standing barefoot in thick mud trying hard to follow instructions given by a fragile-looking 60-year-old Acehnese man. He is trying to teach me how to cut ready-to-be-harvested plants with a razor-sharp sickle. So there I am holding a sickle rather nervously, steadying myself to chop at golden foliage in a rice field in Meulaboh, Indonesia. And, it’s harder than it looks!

I am here as part of a celebration event held to mark the first harvest for Meulaboh since the devastating tsunami at the end of 2004. Seeing life return to this rice paddy is almost miraculous, considering that tsunami-driven seawaters fouled this same paddy not even a year ago. Even a few months ago, many parties speculated that it was the end of rice-farming on these lands as we know it!

The piles of golden rice plants take me back to the days when I first entered Banda Aceh just four days after the tsunami had struck. Behind the headlines and the bustling streets filled with reporters were the tireless efforts of emergency workers dedicated to delivering help and bringing some sense of normalcy after the tremendous loss suffered by the Acehnese.

Now, some nine months after the disaster struck, some UN agencies and many international humanitarian organizations have remained to provide assistance for specific sectors, including work on children’s welfare, environment, or education programmes. Mercy Corps is among those organizations. A massive operations team of around 200 people has now long replaced the small assessment team of six people that initially responded to critical needs in the tsunami’s wake.

Over these past months, things have certainly changed drastically—for the better from my perspective. Challenges are still evident in some villages we work with, however. Lack of housing continues to be an ongoing problem in the displaced communities of Aceh. I see families in government-provided barracks still living under disheartening conditions due to insufficient facilities and lack of village infrastructure. Additionally, many vital small businesses have yet to revive due to lack of financial resources, market access, or supporting facilities.

Looking at the magnitude of the damage, it may take years before environments are cleaned, reconstruction is completed, and the economy revitalized for the communities we work in. We are here for the long haul though. We remain guided by the philosophy that all reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts we provide must respond to the needs expressed by the communities themselves. Our programmes have also focused on an overarching purpose: to return people to their villages. Support phases have changed from emergency aid and relief assistance to long-term recovery and sustainable development.

Let me offer an example. In Meulaboh, we continue to support numerous local associations of farmers, fishermen, and livestock producers by providing cash grants and the tools and equipment they need to return to their livelihoods. More than one hundred boats have been repaired, which has allowed fishermen to return to the sea.

One key to the success of our post-tsunami programs is believing that the affected individuals have the capacity to rebuild their own lives. Continuous talks and discussions between Mercy Corps staff and affected communities are critical to understanding how we will continue to succeed in providing the assistance that’s most appropriate.

We have, for example, been installing new water and sanitation systems in a number of villages, but our programme includes forming a water committee for each community. A water committee—made up of local individuals—determines the most suitable ways for the community to use this new facility. We are now seeing these committees perform as independent units empowered to sign agreements with water companies to maintain and determine payment for any water system installed in their community.

There is certainly a lot of reconstruction and recovery left to be done in Aceh. But all of it is more successful when people are empowered to make choices to return to their former home, or begin a new life altogether. By engaging local governments, businesses, organizations, and the families themselves, this approach has worked. These communities have shown that they have the ability to not only recover, but also to triumph over the many hardships they have faced.

(Deborah Tomasowa is Public Information Officer with Mercy Corps Indonesia)

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