The Asian tsunami of 2004 killed more than 170,000 people in the Indonesian province of Aceh alone, washing away tens of thousands of homes, schools and businesses. Two years later, reconstruction is under way, but the recovery effort is not as far along as many had hoped it would be.
The provincial capital Banda Aceh is booming with new stores, restaurants and hotels. There's something else new -- and not at all welcome -- in this once-sleepy city: traffic jams. All of it seemed unimaginable just two years ago, says Paul Dillon, who is with the International Organization for Migration.
"I arrived two days after the tsunami and have been here ever since," Dillon says. "And I'm constantly amazed to see the extent to which reconstruction occurred. That said, there remain major challenges when it comes to housing and infrastructure, and those are going to persist for years to come."
Families Crammed into Small Barracks
A gaggle of children greet a visitor in the muddy courtyard outside their temporary home in the town of llokgna, several miles up the coast from the provincial capital. It took just a few minutes for the tsunami to leave a half-million homeless in Aceh. Two years on, some 70,000 are still living in temporary wooden barracks like this one. Entire families -- sometimes more -- live in a single 10-by-20 room.
Marzuki, 28, is a fisherman and widower who shares his room in the barracks with two other families. He wants to get on with his life and start a new family to replace the one he lost, he says. But he can't -- not while he has to live in such cramped conditions.
"They tell me I have to be patient," Marzuki says. "But they won't tell me when I'll get help to rebuild. It might be a few months, it might be longer. They just tell me I have to wait."
The United Nations recovery coordinator for Aceh, Eric Morris, hears Marzuki's frustration. He says things should be better.
"I would say a B+ for effort, and something less in terms of actual accomplishments for stated targets," Morris says of reconstruction efforts.
Early Promises Proved Hard to Keep
No one disputes that the initial response to the tsunami was extraordinary, and extraordinarily successful. The reconstruction phase has been less so -- in part, Morris says, because of promises made early on that proved impossible to keep.
"Many of the targets -- particularly with respect to permanent new houses for tsunami survivors --most of those targets were probably unrealistic," Morris says. He says there was an insufficient awareness of obstacles in terms of procurement, construction supplies, logistical constraints and other issues that have prevented early expectations from being fully met.
Competition between aid agencies has sometimes gotten in the way of cooperation, Morris says, as non-governmental organizations rush to build houses with money generously donated by governments and ordinary people from around the world.
"There are different ways of going about rebuilding these settlements and these communities, some of them very effective and some of them less so," says the International Organization for Migration's Paul Dillon. "And as a result, what you have is a mishmash of different qualities and styles of construction, and that can be very problematic."
The town of Peuken Bada offers a good glimpse into the progress and problems so far. Only a handful of buildings were left standing after the tsunami. More than half of the town's population was swept away -- 10,000 people gone in an instant.
Pueken Bada is on the mend. Construction crews are busy rebuilding hundreds of homes, which have sprouted like mushrooms among the marsh grass and tidal pools near the shore. Some, built early on by a south African charity that's since left, are so small and poorly built that they sit empty, with residents refusing to move in. Others are bigger and better.
Waiting to Start a New Life
One of the people we've been following over the past two years is Mursalin. He is the proud owner of a new house. It sits just a few feet away from the crude, one-room shack he built last year on the foundation of his old house, which was swept away -- along with his family -- when the tsunami hit.
Mursalin gives a tour of his nearly completed home, one of 200 built in Peuken Bada by Catholic Relief Services. It has two bedrooms, a living room and a bathroom -- more than enough space for Mursalin, his new wife and their 8-month-old son.
"We were supposed to move in a few months ago, Mursalin says, "but now they tell us there's a problem with the contractor."
Mursalin says he hopes they'll be able to move sometime in January. But Catholic Relief Services Aceh Director Scott Campbell says that's not going to happen.
"We're having certain issues with the contractors based on the houses they're building," Campbell says. "CRS [Catholic Relief Services] is committed to making sure that the houses we build are structurally sound. And when those quality standards aren't met, we have to take certain actions to ensure that contractors in the field are building to a certain standard."
Campbell says it could take five or six months more to retrofit the houses in question. Mursalin is disappointed but still grateful. When it is finished, he says, it'll be a good house -- better than many here. He just wishes it would happen sooner.
A New Home Worth the Wait
A few hundred yards away, another house is nearly completed. This one will be home to Samiruddin, his wife Rohani and their two children. We've been following this family since the tsunami first hit. When their house was washed away two years ago, the family fled to the home of Rohani's mother, several miles further inland. Samiruddin is nearly done building their new home, with materials and some labor provided by Uplink, a German NGO. It has taken a while, Samiruddin says, but the wait has been worth it.
"Our old house was a little bigger, but this one is stronger," he says. "It's all concrete. And the walls are much thicker than our old house, or even those new houses that CRS is building over there. So I'm pretty happy with the way things are going."
His trucking business is going well, too; Samiruddin says he has more work than he can handle. Samiruddin's 11-year-old son, Yusran, is also eager to move back.
"This is where I used to live," he says, "so I'm happy to be coming back. I'll be able to walk to school and play more with my friends who've also come back."
Yusran says he's no longer afraid of the water, as he was immediately after the tsunami. His mother, Rohani, is. She's been reluctant to move back from the beginning, and is no less reluctant now.
"I'm still afraid," she says, "but not really. I'm afraid in my heart that the water will come again. I know my husband and my children want to move back. But if it were up to me, we'd just stay with my mother."
But many survivors don't have a choice. They will continue living with relative or in barracks for some time to come. Initial estimates put recovery time for the battered province at three to five years. Officials now say it may take a decade -- and even that depends, to a large extent, on whether a post-tsunami peace agreement between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government continues to hold.
Most Acehnese hope it does. Between that decades-long conflict and the tsunami, they reckon they've suffered enough.