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Tsunami Wounds Still Fresh in Indonesia One Year Later

A year after an earthquake and tsunami ravaged Indonesia's Aceh province, survivors are not only still mourning the loss of their families and homes, but tens of thousands are stuck in tents, living in dismal conditions. The reconstruction effort is up and moving, but its slow pace has left many people frustrated.

At least 169,000 people were left dead or missing by the tsunami that swept through Aceh on December 26 last year.

Half a million were left homeless, but the unprecedented generosity of the international community, which pledged more than $6 billion in aid to Aceh, quickly saw tents and emergency aid brought to the area. Yet, a year later, more than 70,000 people still languish in tent camps.

Yusriadi, 20, is one of them. He lost most of his family in the tsunami. For the past year he has been living in a tent camp. Mr. Yusriadi says the people from aid organizations are in Aceh just to make money. He says they live in big houses and ride in nice cars while he and his friends live in misery.

Around 15,000 temporary homes have been built, but in no particular way. Some areas have nice houses, some are barely habitable shacks.

About 80,000 people live in rough barracks that are a step up from the tents, but are still crowded and grim.

Petria, who lost three of her four children and her husband in the tsunami, lives in a tent camp along the devastated west coast. Strong winds knock the tents down, there is no electricity, rain comes in, and puddles of mud are everywhere around the forlorn-looking camp.

Ms. Petria says she is grateful for the food aid, but hopes there can be more of it. She says some people from an aid agency, she has no idea which one, came to the camp and promised the people their homes. But that was six months ago, and no one has been there since.

Many in the camps echo her complaints. Despite promises, there are not enough new homes. People say they know what they need, but do not know where to find help.

And yet help is there. Aid agencies have budgets running into tens of millions of dollars to provide survivors with new homes.

But an array of problems has slowed reconstruction, ranging from rivalries among aid agencies over who builds what where, to government red tape, land ownership issues and shortages of building materials.

Even the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR), which is in charge of rebuilding Aceh, took four months for the government to form. And the BRR moves slowly, in part to prevent the corruption Indonesia is infamous for, an effort that has been largely successful.

BRR head Kuntoro Mangkusubroto says BRR officials have spent much of their time meeting with villagers to plan new communities and work out property rights.

Mr. Kuntoro says the agency is working, but he concedes it has not accomplished as much as it needs to. "Right now is the right direction, yes, we are going in the right direction," he said. "But if we have achieved, no. Because people still live in barracks. So before the last person move from the barrack to their house, then I can say that I have achieved. So we have to work harder when it comes to the process."

The International Federation of the Red Cross offers one partial solution. It aims to build 20,000 temporary homes by the end of March.

The homes are sturdy 25 square meter lightweight units designed by Red Cross engineers to meet local conditions and to be easy to deliver and quickly assemble. They are larger than the tents, and can be put up in a day.

Kevin William Diegler, the Red Cross construction projects coordinator, says his staff will train people in each village to erect the homes, and then people can build their own.

Mr. Diegler is optimistic this can get the people into more adequate shelter while they wait for permanent homes to be built, a process estimated to take at least four years. "It's enabling these communities to start getting back together, building their livelihoods again and to start back to the first sort of stage of normality for their lives," he said. "And it's going to be a long, long process. They're an incredible people, they've been through a lot."

Many survivors have left the squalid tent camps and barracks and moved back to their ruined villages. They built ramshackle huts with wood washed up by the sea, or live under bits of plastics and canvas next to the foundations of their destroyed homes.

Wahyu opted to return to his village of Lampuuk, on the east coast. Hundreds of families have drifted back, setting up tents and shacks around the mosque, which survived the tsunami. Mr. Wahyu says people were tired of living in the camps and just wanted to come home, so now many are building shelters out of debris left by the tsunami.

In a beachside area of Banda Aceh called Ulhee Lhee, where most of the homes were destroyed and two-thirds of the population killed, about 50 survivors have set up their own tent camp. Their frustration rings out with a sign at the entrance of their camp that reads, "It is better to stay here in our own village."

Camp leader Dalman says they decided to move back because they could no longer bear the conditions in the camps. An aid organization has provided sanitation, but like many of the tent camps, there is no electricity and Mr. Dalman says it is dark and lonely at night. Mr. Dalman says they have been promised homes for a year, but still they receive nothing. He says that is why they put up the banner.

In addition to the tens of thousands living in tents and barracks, more than 300,000 people who lost their homes live with friends and relatives. Those people, too, need to rebuild their homes and re-establish their lives.

Many people are trying to reclaim their livelihoods - fishing, opening small shops, collecting scrap for sale. And aid agencies have rebuilt many lost schools, clinics and other badly needed infrastructure.

Bo Asplund, the U.N. coordinator in Indonesia says getting people into temporary homes is a priority, along with getting the economy working again in Aceh. "We've got to make the economy work," he said. "As long as people have a cash wage, they will take matters into their own hands. People are masters of their own destinies. If they have a cash wage and employment, other things will be worked out. That's very, very important."

And for the people of Aceh, having their own homes will be the biggest step toward controlling their own destinies again.