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Aceh Tsunami Reconstruction Restores Area, But Survivors Forever Changed

Five years ago more than 200,000 people were killed when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami across the Indian Ocean. The worst hit area was the northern Indonesian province of Aceh. Before the tsunami Aceh was closed off to most of the world because it was embroiled in nearly 30 years of civil war. Afterward, the overwhelming loss united people in grief and the outpouring of international aid helped end the fighting and rebuild the region. Today, the reconstruction is almost complete but many survivors will never be the same.

In the city of Banda Aceh work crews are still rebuilding roads that were destroyed by the tsunami five years ago. But for the most part, the billions of dollars of the tsunami reconstruction aid has all been spent and city appears to be back to normal.

Memories still fresh

The remnants of the tsunami damage have become both tourist attractions and memorials. Visitors, like Budi from east Java, come to see a large ship that the waves carried over four kilometers inland.

He says he can only imagine how back then the wave could move this huge ship.

Others, like Khadijah from the city of Medan, visit the wreckage of a hospital and a mass grave to reflect on the tragedy.

"No matter what you do there is another power beyond the human beings," Khadijah said.

The tsunami killed over 160,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh province.

More than 40,000 others died elsewhere, mostly in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. The waves reached all the way to East Africa.

Outpouring of aid

But the devastation and the outpouring of international aid afterward helped separatist rebels and the Indonesian government reconcile their differences. Within a year of the tsunami, the civil war that began in 1976 was over. It is a fragile peace but it holds, perhaps in part because many tsunami survivors are tempered by their grief and humbled by the destructive power they witnessed.

While 17-year-old Adi Satria seems happy and carefree playing soccer with his friends, when asked about the tsunami he becomes withdrawn.

He says it is traumatizing to remember because he lost a lot of close friends.

Art helps deal with loss

The tsunami museum in Banda Aceh wants people to remember in part to deal with the loss. One painting depicts terrified villagers trying to run from a huge wave. Another shows an anguished mother as she watches the tsunami carry off her child.

Museum curator Merwan Yusuf says many of the artists were tsunami victims.

He says they are painting with feeling, in every painting there is emotion.

Miracle from God?

Busriadi is a fisherman who was trying to run for safety when the waves swept him up and carried him seven kilometers inland.

He says it was a miracle from God that he survived.

Like many in this mostly Muslim country, he believes that his survival, as well as the widespread death and destruction caused by the tsunami, was God's will, and how people respond is God's test.

Rita Muthia says she also was saved by a miracle. As wave after wave swept through her neighborhood she climbed up on the roof of her house. From there she could see the next wave coming and knew that this one would sweep her away.

She says she was not thinking this was the end of the world, but she was thinking that maybe she was going to die.

But then an empty fishing boat drifted into the neighborhood. She and other neighbors were able to get to the safety of the boat before the next wave arrived.

Muthia says that while many died, many more survived the tsunami and they no longer take life for granted.