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Aceh Reconstruction Bureau Closes

The westernmost Indonesian province of Aceh was the area worst hit by the 2004 tsunami. 167,000 people there died, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Four years later, the Bureau for the Reconstruction of Aceh is closing shop, its work nearly done.

The new road that runs along the southern coast of Aceh is, in parts, a wide and smooth highway of a quality rarely seen in Indonesia. Neat and colorful houses along the highway are the new face of post-tsunami Aceh.

Some houses still empty

But many of the brand-new houses remain vacant, because of construction problems.

That is the case in Deddy's village. The young man walks toward a new house that is only used by a herd of cows as a shelter against the brutal midday sun

"People are afraid to live in it, because the roof is not well attached, it just lies on the cement and it could fall on us," he says. "There are a lot of problems with all the houses. So many houses are not ready. Almost none of them! If you want to live in them, you have to renovate them yourself. We're so disappointed."

Throughout the province complaints like that abound. That new highway? In parts it remains rubble. People are still waiting for new houses, while just-built ones have no electricity or running water.

From Jakarta, things seem positive

But seen from Jakarta, the picture is considered very bright indeed: 90 percent of the reconstruction is finished in Aceh: almost 130,000 houses have been built, 3,000 kilometers of roads, 1,500 schools.

Joachim Von Amsberg is the country director for the World Bank, which helped fund and supervise reconstruction efforts.

"It's easy to make a big story out of the failures, but this actually is a success story. Aceh and Nias have been built back, and in some cases have been built back better," he says.

Most of the work was done by the Indonesian Bureau for the Reconstruction of Aceh, known as the BRR. On Thursday, it closes down for good.

Some criticize BRR's work

A young Achenese intellectual, Aguswandi, says BRR has done well, but not enough.

"There is a gap of opinion about their performance between people in Aceh and those who are based in Jakarta or outside of Aceh," Aguswandi says. "Acehnese question whether they have done enough. You had a lot of groups coming, you had a lot of funds available…. This should have put Aceh in a much better place. But in fact no. The first thing that the Acehnese worry about is "what's going to happen after the BRR has left Aceh?"

The BRR was created for tsunami relief. It is regarded as free of corruption, making it an inspiration for much-needed bureaucratic reforms in Indonesia.

But Yusra Iwata Alsa, head of the BRR anti-corruption unit, warns that when the office closes and its mission passes to local and national agencies, Aceh might go back to old habits.

"I myself organized anti-corruption trainings in several districts and cities of Aceh," Yusra says. "During these sessions, we taught the civil servants all the modus operandi to be put in place in order to get rid of corruption. But I'm sad about the results, because out of the dozen districts where I taught, only one showed progress."

Many problems remain

Lambung neighborhood, in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, was flattened by the waves on December 26, 2004.

It should exemplify the BRR motto: "build back better". Where used to lie a dirty, cramped, unhealthy area, today wide lanes cut through a neat array of little bungalows.

But no water runs into the towers' brand new toilets, and no lamps can shine because electricity was cut off a few months after the the Lambung project was done. The residents say they can not afford to pay the bills.

Some positive results

It is something that aid workers like Jerôme Fernandez, from Education International, fear could happen to the rest of the infrastructure built after the tsunami.

"That's the question we ask everybody: what will happen of all the things we are leaving behind? It will be a shame, you know, if all those buildings are not maintained, because some of them, they are schools that they could not have even dreamed of," he notes. "The local government should maintain these schools. If not, they will become very dirty, or just white elephants."

The tsunami had one positive outcome: the trauma brought an end to a civil war that had torn the province for three decades.

In Indonesia's recent legislative elections, former rebels, who already control most of the local executive posts, including governor, largely won control of the local parliaments. After years of fighting, they have democratically won control Aceh, and now will be responsible for finishing the tsunami reconstruction.