In Indonesia

A Wave of Memories

A girl sits near her mother during a memorial service for tsunami victims in Landung, Banda Aceh. About 167,000 people were killed in the province.
A girl sits near her mother during a memorial service for tsunami victims in Landung, Banda Aceh. About 167,000 people were killed in the province. (By Beawiharta -- Reuters)
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 26, 2005


Flowerpots have begun to brighten porches here. Fishermen are back at sea. Eighteen people in this seaside village have remarried, and seven women are pregnant.

Signs of routine life have returned to this village, once home to 1,350 people but reduced to 257 by the Indian Ocean tsunami a year ago. Most of the survivors were men, fishing or tending crops in the hills while their wives and children close to shore died.

Much has been lost in Lamteungoh and all of Aceh province, where an estimated 167,000 people were killed in the area hit hardest by the tsunami, which pummeled coastal communities in a dozen countries. But people here are taking solace from the security that comes with peace. For the first time in a generation, they do not fear military checkpoints or ransom demands by rebels. A 30-year conflict between the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement ended with a peace accord on Aug. 15, partly as a result of both groups setting aside differences after the tsunami to work on reconstruction.

"This is what the Acehnese people have always dreamed of -- peace," said Marwadi, a fisherman and preacher whose new wife is two months pregnant. Not long ago, he said, soldiers would barge into his house, accusing him of supporting the rebels, demanding to see identification. "Now, there's no one checking our ID," he said. "We are free to go anywhere."

On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake launched the tsunami that killed an estimated 223,500 people and left 1.8 million others homeless. Today, in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, fewer than one-fourth of the homes that need to be rebuilt are completed or under construction. In Indonesia, by far the worst hit, more than 60,000 people are still in tents during the monsoon season and several hundred thousand more are in barracks or with relatives, waiting for new homes. Pledges of aid reached a record $13.6 billion, but only a fraction has been spent. In Thailand, where lucrative beach coasts were damaged, land disputes have slowed recovery. While peace has been restored in Aceh, a similar move in Sri Lanka to make peace with separatist rebels appears near collapse.

A reporter returned to Lamteungoh last week, after having visited in January, a month after the tsunami. Despite the enormous obstacles to rebuilding after the largest disaster relief effort in history, people were trying to recapture the rhythms of life. But it is not easy. Memories intrude, said the survivors, who recalled a child's hand slipping away or a wife falling to her death.

The grave where Baharuddin, the village leader of Lamteungoh, buried his 11-year-old daughter a year ago is not far from his temporary wooden home.

"Do you remember there used to be dead bodies here?" Baharuddin said, recalling when he and his men buried 300 corpses in three days. He pointed to the foundation of a house being built for a villager. "We moved them and buried them over there."

On a recent rainy afternoon, Baharuddin, whose wife and five children were killed by the tsunami, reminisced how he and his son would cut the grass in their field. "On this kind of day, we would go find food for the cow and play around in the barn," he said.

All around him, construction workers were hammering roofs and laying bricks. By next spring, he said he expects there will be 180 new houses in the village. But his mind was elsewhere -- in the field, in the barn, with his family. "I don't want to let go of the memory," said Baharuddin, who, like many people in Indonesia, uses only one name.

"What's the point of peace if you don't have a family?"

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