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Archive for December, 2007

At Sea with Marzuki [Voices from the Archive]

Posted by Peter Biro on 28 December, 2007

Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
Earlier this year, Peter Biro returned to Aceh, Indonesia, where he was part of the IRC’s emergency response after the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004. (22 March 2007) Marzuki, 39, is throwing out a wide net over the water’s glittering surface. In the distance we can barely make out the coastline of Calang, the small fishing community which was one of the hardest hit areas when the 2004 tsunami ravaged large parts of Southeast Asia.

Marzuki’s boat, an eight meter long wooden vessel built in traditional Indonesian design featuring a slightly elevated bow, was given to him as part of a comprehensive IRC program to help fishermen resume their business after the disaster.

As we navigate back and forth to prevent the net from getting stuck in the propeller, I point out that the vessel seems a tad unstable. Marzuki laughs at this.

“This is the way we have always built boats,” he grins. “It is very good. You are a foreigner, perhaps not so used to the sea?”

Marzuki drops the buoy attached to the net and lights a kretek, the traditional clove-scented cigarette.

He tells me about that fateful day – the 26th of December 2004 – when a massive earthquake struck just off the Sumatran coast and the ensuing tsunami swept away everything in its path. The town of Calang alone lost up to 70 percent of its population of around 10,000.

“I was out at sea that morning,” Marzuki said and took another drag on his cigarette. “Suddenly I heard a roar. It sounded like a cannon. I headed back to shore and my house, everything, was gone. It was like after a big war.”

Marzuki said that he went up on the highest hill in Calang and looked out over the village. He just sat there quietly, he told me.

“Because there was nothing else I could do. I knew my family was gone.”

Marzuki lost his wife and two children, as well as his parents and many friends. The following months were hard, he said. His boat had drifted out to sea in the immediate chaos of the tsunami and food was scarce for a long time. He couldn’t work for the first year.

“And I didn’t even want to be near the water. I hated what the ocean had done. I wasn’t sure that I would ever want to become a fisherman again.”

Marzuki told me that he eventually changed his mind. “Fishing is what my father did as well, and his father before that. I had to go back to the sea.”

It has now been a year since the IRC provided Marzuki and some 150 other fishermen here with new boats and necessary fishing equipment. Soon after, he also remarried and now has an eight-month-old son, Ibrahim Issa.

“He is my biggest love,” Marzuki smiled.

In spite of the unbelievable suffering that befell Calang and this beautiful coastline, life here has indeed started again.

“Maybe we should go back to the shore,” Marzuki said suddenly. “Do you drink coffee?”

Earlier: On the road to Calang


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On the Road to Calang [Voices from the Archive]

Posted by Peter Biro on 27 December, 2007

Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
Earlier this year, Peter Biro returned to Aceh, Indonesia, where he was part of the IRC’s emergency response after the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004.

(20 March 2007) I join a group of International Rescue Committee colleagues for the six-hour car journey to Calang, further south on the Sumatran coast. The small fishing town was completely wiped off the map by the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, and when the IRC arrived here as the first international organization, the task to rebuild this community seemed enormous.

The trip back then took us 22 hours on board the Farabi, an IRC-chartered fishing boat bringing in badly needed supplies to survivors. Debris from capsized fishing boats was abundant and when darkness fell, our captain slowed down the engine and scanned the water with a searchlight.

“Now it is much easier,” laughs Intan, the IRC’s water and sanitation engineer, as I tell the story. “A new road has been built slightly inland from the old coastal road. We should be there in six hours.”

After a few hours we stop at a small river, where the IRC has helped the community to get a vital ferry linking two villages cut off by the tsunami. As we make the crossing I ask the operator, Yogi Efendi, what post-tsunami life is like here, in the countryside. Is his village going through the same dramatic changes as the provincial capital?

“Yes, things are getting better,” he said just as a huge, prehistoric-looking monitor lizard crawled from the water onto a small islet in the river.

“After the tsunami we lost everything. My father and brother died. There were 1,200 people living here. Now only 300 remain.”

Yogi Efendi told me that the tsunami also split his village, Kuala Ligan, from their neighbours.

“We always traded with people around here,” he said as we pulled up to the shore, letting a group of people onto the vessel. “After the tsunami we felt isolated. This ferry links the people again and business in much better.”

“And the money that the community makes from the ferry is reinvested in agricultural projects in the village,” adds Isma, who helps coordinate the project for the IRC. “In the village we have also built a new community center, and football and volleyball pitches so that the young people have something to do. We are also helping small businesses to restart by donating animals and motorcycle taxis.”

When our four-wheel drive finally reaches Calang, we pull into a relatively large compound made up of a dozen concrete houses and some prefabricated office modules from which a range of IRC programs are coordinated. It was on this very same spot that IRC’s emergency team set up its first base consisting of two medium sized tents. Back then, the town was frequently rocked by strong and unnerving aftershocks and sleeping on the ground under the canvas was difficult.

Today, Calang once again resembles any other small Indonesian fishing town. The entire center has been rebuilt and there are hardly any signs of the enormous disaster that completely flattened the town and killed the majority of its 10,000 people in the process. Near the small harbor, the fishmongers, who have received IRC support to restart their businesses, are packing up for the day. And as the sun sets, the beautifully haunting sound of the call to prayer choruses from a dozen nearby mosques.

Tonight, as I fall asleep in my little room, I can hear the roar of the waves breaking onto the sandy beach less than ten meters from my window. And I can’t help but thinking about all the people who died here.

Earlier: Banda Aceh Revisited   Next: At Sea with Marzuki

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Banda Aceh Revisited [Voices from the Archive]

Posted by Peter Biro on 26 December, 2007

The IRC’s Peter Biro in tsunami-devastated Aceh, Indonesia in January 2005
Photo: The IRC
Earlier this year, Peter Biro returned to Aceh, Indonesia, where he was part of the IRC’s emergency response after the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004.  

(19 March 2007) It has been over two years since I first visited the Indonesian province of Aceh, days after the devastating tsunami struck and claimed an estimated 170,000 lives in the country.

Back then, in January 2005, the provincial capital Banda Aceh was a city in utter chaos. Debris and human corpses littered the streets and shell-shocked survivors were desperately searching for relatives, friends and belongings amid collapsed buildings and twisted car wrecks. From its hub in a traditional Acehnese one-story house, IRC staff fanned out across the devastated coastal areas of Sumatra to provide assistance.

Now the changes are dramatic. At the Pante Birak bridge, which two years ago was partially blocked by fishing boats heaved ashore by the devastating force of the waves, traffic flows with relative ease. Street vendors line the pavement and large illuminated billboards advertise mobile phones and cigarettes. As I pass the nearby shopping center that was flattened by the earthquake, I recall the swarms of people who, in January 2005, were lining up in its parking lot, then a distribution point for noodles and cooking oil. The building is now restored, with customers and traders going about their daily work. The city’s impressive Baiturrahman mosque is restored to its former glory and has just received a brand new coat of white paint. And the IRC has also shifted its focus, from the emergency aid of the first year following the disaster, to long-term development assistance.

My colleague, Ridwan, who has lived all his life in Banda Aceh, told me that life has changed dramatically for people here since the tsunami hit. Although people still mourn their dead, life has also returned, he told me over a cup of strong Acehnese coffee. Many people, Ridwan said, are remarried and have children again. A lot of buildings and roads have been rebuilt and people are making money again.

“Even more than before the tsunami, because of all the money coming in from abroad,” Ridwan says.

And as a result of the suffering in the aftermath of the tsunami, the protracted conflict between the Indonesian army and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was brought to an end with a peace agreement in August 2005. After a historic vote, Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM rebel who was jailed for treason but escaped when the tsunami struck his prison, was recently sworn in as the first directly elected governor of Aceh province.

“People are optimistic about the future for the first time in many years,” Ridwan said. “It is fantastic.”

Next: On the Road to Calang 

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Posted by The IRC on 24 December, 2007

Mae Hong Son Thailand
Photo: The IRC
Thank you for reading our blog and for being part of IRC’s global family.We wish you peace and all the best in the New Year.

– All of the IRC’s “voices from the field”

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Hope and Fear in Afghanistan

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 21 December, 2007

Family in Jalalabad
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
The IRC’s Ronnie Saha wrote an article today for The Globalist, a daily online magazine on global affairs and politics, considering the return of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan and the country’s development progress and needs. Ronnie traveled to Afghanistan with the IRC earlier this year. “There is a palpable sense of both hope and fear in Afghanistan — hope in the progress being made, but fear that the international community will leave before the job is done,” he writes.

Check out the Google map of Ronnie’s trip here.

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