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The Aceh Province Continues to Struggle in the Aftermath of the December Tsunami

March 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


DAN RIVERS: The surreal landscape of Aceh: Ships impossibly stranded miles from the sea; an incomprehensible wasteland. I found it just as moving, just as depressing as my last visit here ten weeks ago.The haunting coast road crippled and still.

At first glance it appeared nothing had changed. This was once a village of 10,000 people — reduced to a collection of tents.

Everywhere pitiful scenes: A man scavenging for scrap metal, his blind son helpless nearby. The aid agencies say they now have enough money. I was amazed. The need still seemed enormous. But Oxfam told me the cash had successfully averted starvation, allowing them to work on long-term projects.

BRENDAN COX: You haven’t had the second wave of death that we were really concerned about from cholera, from other airborne diseases — it could have happened. That’s what the aid agencies working with local people have done so far, but of course, this, as you look around, it’s going to take years and years or take decades to fix all this.

And I think, as you look around you now, things are beginning to improve in some areas; people are moving out of tents into more permanent structures; people are beginning to lay the foundations for new houses. But, as you say, this certainly will take years.

DAN RIVERS: And it’s true. They showed me a foundation stone being laid for the first new house in the village of Lampia. Nearby, an opening ceremony for a new tool store providing equipment to enable villagers to start reconstruction.

Some are being paid to rebuild. These men earn two pounds fifty a day; among them, this man. He’s working as a foreman. He thanks everyone who donated money, but says they still lack basic equipment. In his village there are only 22 stoves between 100 households. As we leave, he is overcome. Our interpreter is an old childhood friend. Zil lost 50 relatives, including his 17-year-old daughter.

Most survivors are living in camps like this one. This family’s situation is typical: eleven adults and four children crammed into one tent. They’re given two liters of cooking fuel a week, but say they need that a day. But they do have clean water and basic food. Thanks to the money donated, disease and starvation have been averted. But in some places the aid is patchy. I met people in the village of Luknar who say they’ve had no help at all; preparing to rebuild completely on their own.

What I’ve seen over the last few days has been at once inspiring and depressing. Yes, the aid agencies are involved in some very worthwhile projects. But then you come to somewhere like this. These extraordinary scenes remind you of just the sheer scale of what there is still left to do.

Only the strongest could possibly have survived this onslaught. Too often it was the women, the elderly, the children who were unable to struggle free. When I met a group of survivors from Aceh Island, what struck me was not who was there, but who was missing.

All these men are now without their wives. All are now trying to adapt to a community where the gender balance has been dramatically altered. It means work traditionally reserved for women is now being carried out by men. They’re forced to learn new skills. Under normal circumstances, this would be progress. But here it’s the legacy of a catastrophe.

The sociological impact of the tsunami will last for generations. In some villages the men outnumber the women by ten to one. It could have profound effects on the way Acehnese society functions in the future.

The village chief tells me there are now 280 men for 112 women. But in other communities that difference is even more pronounced. He admits they’re all having to adapt. It’s not just the women who are in the minority. Many elderly people also perished. Those that remain are often relying on the men to care for them.

Perhaps the oldest survivor of the whole tsunami is Chatagunmuntun; she’s 105 years old, in remarkably good health for her age. She was plucked to safety by her 70-year-old son. Her daughter’s dead. He’s now the one looking after her.

The young women that have survived are now in the minority, but all have remarkable stories, none more so than Petri. We brought her back to the remains of her family home for the first time, now little more than a concrete foundation. She was six months pregnant when she was swept away by the tsunami. Her husband was killed, but she survived, afloat for ten hours before being rescued miles out to sea.

Incredibly, Petri’s baby is due any day, but with such an imbalanced society, life may be very different for the next generation.