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For Aceh's Tsunami Survivors, a Step Toward Normalcy


The first of more than 400,000 refugees from Indonesia's tsunami-devastated Aceh province are moving into temporary wooden barracks, in a small but important step on the region's slow road to recovery.

A group of more than 400 refugees will move Tuesday from their tent shelters in the Acehnese capital of Banda Aceh to temporary wooden barracks, in what the government says is the first stage of the relocation process.

A director of the public works department, Totok Pri, says, by mid-March, the government will have built a total of 803 temporary shelters, which will be able to house up to 9730 families.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck on December 26 left a quarter of a million people in Aceh dead or missing. Entire villages, roads and bridges were destroyed. Another half a million refugees, survivors of the disaster, are currently dispersed across the province.

The United Nations public information officer in Banda Aceh, Hiro Ueki, says relocation to the new housing is temporary, and must be done on a voluntary basis.

"Nobody should be forced to relocate to those centers. As long as displaced people are willing to move to relocation centers, that's fine with us, but, basically, we would prefer that those people go back to their previous homes and start to rebuild their lives there again," Mr. Ueki says.

But Mr. Ueki says those who want to return home may not have that option for some time.

"But still a large number of people are not in the position to do so, given the fact that removal of the rubble continues, in some cases, entire towns or villages have been destroyed," Mr. Ueki says. "… So, it will take some time for many of them to be able to go back and start rebuilding their lives."

Despite the bitter memories awaiting them, many Acehnese have expressed a deep desire to return to their original villages.

But the government says those who wish to build new homes must do so in approved areas. It is considering turning the destroyed coastal areas into buffer zones for protection against any future tsunami.

Officials say the temporary camps are being built to internationally accepted standards for sanitation and other essentials, and will be run by the refugees themselves.