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02/11/05 12:00AM
Total Collected:
US$ 69,122.10

Journal from the Ground
by Lisa Loomis and Sorayya Khan



Monday, May 14, 2007

¬[05/13/07] [05/15/07]®

We spend the morning visiting a school in Lhoong about an hour and half drive west of Banda Aceh on the coast. The village was near Kelud mountain and toward the latter part of the drive the road wound up and down through hills that Jol, our fearless driver, maneuvered brilliantly. We drove through some of the areas worst hit by the tsunami. The beaches have been washed out, replaced by sediment and rocky terrain. In some places, the rebuilt houses begin virtually where the water ends and it provides a graphic sense of why so many people died during the tsunami. There would have been no warning when the wave hit, and further, people would have had no time to run. In fact, we are told that right before the tsunami hit and the water receded (a warning sign), people on the beach scrambled to gather all the fish left behind.

Beautiful fishing boats docked near houses lining the dirt road to Lhoong.

We read in the newspapers that recent high winds and the resultant giant waves had grounded the fishermen of Banda Aceh and we saw evidence of that as we drove along the coast. Beautifully colored boats were moored close to shore as spectacular breakers rolled in. Had the beach been more hospitable (the sand is gone), it would have been a surfer’s delight.

The landscape is hard to describe. In the areas that the tsunami has not hit, it is green and lush, thick with vegetation, coconut trees that stand tall and straight. In the areas the tsunami hit, the color is different. There are browns and grays, whites left behind on the lone few dead trees. The colors there are manmade: the pink and green of freshly built and painted houses, the silver of tin sheeting or red of roof tiles. The exception is the sea which is always the color of the sky. The day we drive through the area the sky was cloudy and the surf unexpectedly high. We drove on roads that the government has carved from land that belongs to villagers because the old roads were claimed by the sea.

Sometimes we see bits—slabs almost—of the old road lying untouched near the water, the black tar and white divider lines still evident and the pieces of road that lead nowhere almost seem an illusion. In some areas, the villagers are angry that the government has taken their land for a replacement road without compensating them. They have set up obstacle courses of debris, tree stumps, rusting barrels, abandoned tires and pieces of broken houses which make it difficult and slow to pass through. Jol zigzags around the makeshift barriers strategically placed to make all of us take notice. In a few spots, the new dirt road runs next to the sea and it is drenched with ocean spray. We maneuver those places carefully, eyeing the angry surf with caution.

High surf on the West Coast of Aceh.


On the way to the school, we revisited some sites that we’d seen on our first tsunami tour of Aceh. We saw a cement factory that is built into a mountain crevice and--but for the road--borders the sea. Apparently, hundreds of people died in the cement factory that Sunday morning. When we asked why people were working on Sunday morning, Fitri, our translator, and Jol confer and have no answer. We pass an open space which was a storage area for Banda Aceh’s rubble and garbage trucked out of the city during clean-up. Jol explains that the field was once piled high with rubbish that has since sunk into the swampy wetlands and, finally, was flattened by machines. All we see is vast open space and scattered vegetation. We come to a local cemetery marking the tsunami. The cemetery has a plaque of dedication for the dead, but the demarcated area is empty.

Ega, a Phi Beta teacher, is tremendously poised during a question and answer session in the school. Ega was at the beach when the earthquake struck and outran the Tsunami.


The director of the school we visit in Lhoong which is being considered as a place to park the mobile library for the summer.


The lost and rebuilt road to the school took us up and over two twisting mountain passes where the retaining walls built under the Dutch still hold. The walls were built with imported Javanese laborers and Indian laborers we were told because the Acehnese would not to such work. The road is harrowingly narrow in spots and Fitri and Ega wonder at the wisdom of the government carving out huge holes in the mountainsides, gathering rocks to crush for foundations and bridge and road repair.

We cross several temporary bridges and more construction work as we enter the village of Lhoong where the primary school, also a religious school, is being welcomed into the Phi Beta Mobile Library Program. We were led into a whitewashed classroom where three rows of young men and boys were seated on one side of the room and four rows of women and girls on the other.

The event was both a celebration of the mobile library program as well as an opening ceremony for a teacher training program. There will be 40 participants in the three day training program, led by the director, a man from East Java, Ega explained. The mobile library will spend the summer in this village, providing access to books, primarily for children, but Ega says there will be some books made available for adults. This is an area where there used to be 24 villages and now there are six, Ega said.

The ceremony began with a young girl reciting from the Holy Quran and was followed an additional recitation by a village elder. During the ceremonies, the sky clouded up and the wind picked up. Everyone in the room tensed visibly. It began to rain and then pour, and finally, it was a deluge. With each upping of the weather ante, the tension and anxiety level in the room increased.

As it abated after 20 minutes or so, the teachers in training and others undid their shoulders which they had held tightly hunched upwards during the rain. We asked what students at the school needed and were told they needed music and art supplies, religious books and rugs and mats on which to sit while they worked. We were introduced and were asked some questions about ourselves and our work before the students began their training in earnest.

Leaving Ega behind to meet Muhyidden, we returned to Banda Aceh to take care of email and journaling at Aceh Institute. We returned to the hotel to prepare for our next appointment.

Jol takes us on a short detour to see a waterfall in Lhoong. Many kids are playing in the water.


While working in the lobby one evening, sending photographs to this website via email, Lisa met a Canadian engineer working with a French NGO. This French NGO was donating to the city of Banda Aceh a municipal water system and creating storm water (drainage) systems for tsunami affected areas as well as helping rebuild roads and creating standards for the sewage and septic systems in the rebuilt areas.

Engineer Gordon Smith explained that his team was working closely with the BRR on several aspects of reconstruction: mapping out a water supply strategy for the next 25 years, detailing water/sewage and drainage designs in the villages and recreating roads. Banda Aceh, he said, was made up of 88 or 90 villages, 54 of which were destroyed by the tsunami.

We had been particularly curious about how all the NGO work was being coordinated and who was doing it and who decided which organization would build which types of houses and where. As we had toured we saw an incredible array of housing types built in tight rows, built on old and new foundations, built on hillsides, and built with no apparent thought along roads which had changed course after the tsunami.

“It’s been almost impossible for the BRR to organize and coordinate all the groups that wanted to help. There were so many who wanted to help and the national government created the BRR to oversee the relief and rebuilding after the biggest, most massive disaster this country and the world have seen in a century,” Gordon explained. We understand he is referring to a major disaster which modern media communications allowed the world to see.

He said that his agency was working with BRR on trying to create standards for septic systems and drainage systems along with water supplies and road networks so that the infrastructure would be in place before houses were built. That task, he said, was not always possible because of the influx of agencies arriving in Banda Aceh ready to offer monetary and manpower assistance. Seeing houses go up was immediately satisfying for some groups – in terms of feeling like their efforts were helping, so often the houses went up first and the infrastructure is following second.

The herculean task of trying to coordinate the rebuilding fell to the BRR and the NGOs that were helping and the result was that some areas were rebuilt beautifully, he said, with infrastructure in place first and houses built to safety, size and quality specifications second. In other areas where the tsunami had changed the land, village councils had to sort out whose land is now where and make determinations before any rebuilding of either houses or infrastructure could begin. He concurred that the construction quality of some of the houses was sub par but also suggested that the BRR had done the best it could in the face of such an overwhelming task.

In the villages that make up Banda Aceh, Gordon said, traditional waste disposal has been straight pipes from houses into ditches alongside roads. Those ditches empty into canals which empty into the sea. Some areas, he said, have rudimentary septic systems where household wastewater is piped into a concrete tube or riser buried or half buried in the ground. From there, liquids leach into the ground water and solids decompose. He suggested both the straight pipe to canal system and the concrete riser system ran the risk of contaminating ground water.

“But the people here have been boiling their drinking water for years, so they have been able to have waste disposal so close to active wells. That habit, of boiling water, was one reason why, after the tsunami there was no massive outbreak of water borne disease,” he said.

He said that the center of Banda Aceh has a municipal water system, or at least the distribution pipes, in place and was hopeful that the system would be up and running by the time his team leaves in December.

While Lisa was interviewing Gordon, Sorayya was attending an event at the Tikar Pandan community. The community of writers has a writing school, Dokarim, that serves university students. Several of the writers in attendance, including Reza Idria Fozan Santa and Sulaiman Tripa are prolific writers who have many books between them.

Sorayya attends an event at the Tikar Pandan community where an active community of Acehnese writers share their thoughts on writing.


The informal discussion ranged from thoughts on the relationship between politics and writing, and the delicate question of how a writer might tackle his/her subject matter in a society that is not always keen or open to criticism. Given the political situation facing Acehnese writers in the past, especially during the time of the conflict, artists have not always been free to project their voices. Some writers suggested that while the society has opened after the Tsunami and peace accords, it still has some way to go. Some of the women writers in attendance spoke of their interest in examining issues of Shariah law in their work and their struggle to do so. We were collectively sorry that the language barrier prevented us from fully understanding each other during the meeting, but more, that the language barrier prevented us from reading each others’ work. In any event, the gathering provided a sense of an active, engaged writing community comprised of poets, short-story writers, novelists, and critics.

¬[05/13/07] [05/15/07]®