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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.