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For Now, Indonesian Fishermen Are Forced to Abandon the Sea

Officials Must Move Quickly to Revive Industry, Advocates Say

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A09

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Ruslan, a fisherman whose sinewy hands and weather-worn face spoke of 30 years spent on the sea, pushed a shovel along a mucky hospital floor, coaxing mud toward a drain.

At about $3.30 a day, it was not the sweetest of jobs, but it beat sitting in a stuffy tent at a relief camp with nothing to do but remember his life before Dec. 26. The 40-year-old seaman lost his family and his house in the tsunami. He also lost his boat.


Ruslan, a 40-year-old fisherman, lost his family, his boat and his house in the village of Alunaga when the waves hit. (Photos Ellen Nakashima -- The Washington Post)

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Ruslan, whose parents died when he was 3, dropped out of school in the third grade and began to work on fishing boats. He started off helping reel in nets, saving money until 15 years ago, when he bought his own boat for $800. He worked every day but Sunday, leaving his home after dawn prayers and breakfast. He hauled in tuna, lobsters and crabs, clearing $250 in a good month.

Fishermen and their families were hit particularly hard by the tsunami, not only because they live near the coast, but also because the blow to their livelihood may be the most enduring. The disaster killed more than 115,000 people in Indonesia. The government said 14,000 fishermen were among the dead, but some analysts estimate the actual figure is larger.

Here in the hardest-hit province of Aceh, a $422 million industry was decimated in a matter of minutes, as the powerful walls of water flattened fishing villages, fish markets and wharves, and smashed wooden boats into bits of flotsam.

One reason so many people were killed, environmentalists say, is that more than 90,000 acres of coastal mangrove forests that could have lessened the impact had been destroyed and converted into ponds to breed shrimp and fish.

With coral reefs and the remaining mangrove forests largely destroyed by the tsunami, fish spawning grounds have also been diminished, said Frank Momberg, a tsunami emergency coordinator for Fauna & Flora International, a conservation group based in Britain whose field office on the west coast of Aceh province was swallowed by the waves.

"It will take decades before natural ecosystems are restored," he said.

The experience was so terrifying that many fishermen no longer want to go near the sea.

"I'm very afraid of the water. It's traumatic," said Baharuddin, 42, another fisherman cleaning the hospital.

But there are many others, like Ruslan, who say the sea is their only option.

"I really want to go back to the sea," Ruslan said. "There's no other work, nothing else I know how to do."

The government must move more quickly to help the fishermen and their industry if Aceh is to recover, fishermen's advocates said.

"For the next year or two, we cannot expect any significant income from the fishing industry," said Elfian Effendi, an Aceh native and executive director of Greenomics, a conservation and regional planning institute in Jakarta. "Our estimate is that the total loss for the industry could reach $660 million. That would be more than half of the total economy of Aceh."

For men like Ruslan, with no savings, a livelihood and a way of life are riding on the swiftness of the government's response.

Ruslan's boat, a green-and-white wood vessel with a graceful bow that curved upward, was named Mata Janda, or Tears of a Widow.

"My boat is nothing compared to losing all my family," he said, pausing to lean on his shovel, with a towel wrapped around his sweaty brow. Gone are his wife and four daughters. It is for his sole surviving son, Dedi, 21, that he is pushing the shovel, hoping that in the near future the government will help him rebuild a house and a boat.

Three weeks ago, Ruslan, who uses only one name, was on his boat in the Malacca Strait that separates Sumatra island from Malaysia when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked his boat, followed by two gigantic waves.

"I thought doomsday had come," he said. "When the tsunami came from the west, we moved to the east. When the wave came from the east, we moved to the west."

Eventually a larger boat rescued Ruslan and his nephew, Junaidi. Ruslan was forced to abandon his boat. He never saw it again.

Now he and his son, who was away at boarding school when the tsunami struck, live in a green tent at a relief camp next to a mosque. They share the tent with 100 other people, many of them widowers. At the camp, the women cook and wash for the men without wives.

The camps are temporary until survivors can move in with relatives or the government builds relocation camps. But temporary can mean weeks. So last week, a leader of the local fishermen's association invited fishermen and other survivors to a meeting. He announced a project, supported with $85,000 from the U.N. Development Program, to put those who lost their homes to work cleaning hospitals and schools for a token wage.

"I don't want these people to stay in camps all day," said M. Adli Abdullah, secretary general of the fishermen's association. "I want them to work, even if it's just for 30,000 rupiah [about $3.30] a day."

"I am still in trauma," said Baharuddin, who lost his wife and three of his five children. "But I keep working just to forget what happened, and also to earn a little money for my kids."

"Maybe, six months from now, I will open my own small shop, become a greengrocer," he said as he heaved shovelfuls of mud into a wheelbarrow outside the radiology department at the hospital. "Maybe I'll become a construction worker. Maybe I'll be a bus driver."

Effendi, whose staff has surveyed the coastal communities, said he estimated that at most about 30 percent of the 44,000 fishermen in Aceh, or 13,000, survived. They will need boats, nets and houses, he said.

The government says it has a plan to build new boats, wharves and fish markets. A spokesman for the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries said he was confident the industry could begin to revive within one year and fully recover in five years.

The spokesman, Aji Sularso, said the government has allocated $8 million this year to help repair the industry. That figure includes money to replace boats -- about 8,900 were destroyed -- and to rebuild fish auction markets and ports, he said.

After he finished swabbing the hospital kitchen, Ruslan and his nephew took a reporter to see from a distance what was left of their village, Alunaga. For centuries, Alunaga sent its sons and fathers to sea. In celebrations of the sea, villagers slaughtered a cow, cooked the meat with curry, feasted and prayed that God would bless them.

Today, it is a barren finger of land jutting into the sea. According to Ruslan, only 500 of 7,000 inhabitants survived. He has not been able to bring himself to return to the ruins of his home. Alunaga, he said, is "just a memory."

Ruslan's son is studying to become a Muslim preacher. Although Ruslan loves the sea, he said he is happy his son is taking another path. "I want his future to be brighter," he said.


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