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After the Tsunami: Rebuilding Aceh

By  Tom Peacock June 20, 2009

The 2004 tsunami that slammed South East Asia has all but disappeared from the headlines here, but in the year since a group of UBC students has been working quietly to help people in Aceh, Indonesia, rebuild their homes and lives.

"At ground zero, there is still nothing. I remember the old walkway and fishing village; now it is rubble."

University of British Columbia graduate student, Shane Barter, is reflecting on his most recent visit to Aceh and North Sumatra while taking a break from marking exam papers. It is the area of Indonesia that experienced the greatest impact from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004.

For Barter, seeing the tsunami devastation firsthand hit hard; North Sumatra is a place that, for two years, he called home. "I visited where my friend Arif's office used to be, right on the water. I stayed there a year prior. It was really difficult—especially seeing his family."

It is the end of term and Barter, 25, admits to being tired. And it's no wonder. The founder of the Tsunami Working Group at UBC, Barter is helping to direct and coordinate the university's volunteer efforts in Aceh—as well as juggling the demands of a PhD and teaching responsibilities. In May, he returned from a fact-finding mission for the university's Global Services Committee, to determine where and how UBC resources can best be used to help with ongoing reconstruction efforts.

At the time of writing, nearly a year after the first news of the devastating tsunami reached us here, Barter has seen coverage of the situation all but disappear from the headlines. He's struggled with bureaucracy and corruption, but still he remains enthusiastic and determined about his work and the accomplishments of the Tsunami Working Group.

His pride in his group of dedicated students and their Indonesian counterparts is obvious as he lists their achievements. Over the past ten months, they've been rebuilding destroyed housing, raising funds to build a new library, helping to set up micro-financing for women and helping children and families affected by the tsunami.

"I guess I am just excited," he says, "because there are concrete results that have come from the efforts of many gifted people."

To say that Barter is familiar with the province of Aceh may be an understatement. He has written a book about the Aceh conflict, worked as an election observer there, and completed a Master's thesis on the role of religion in South-East Asian conflicts.

"I wanted to be able to contribute," Barter says, reflecting back on those grim days immediately after the tsunami. While people around the world were lining up to donate or raise money for aid organizations that were struggling to respond to the situation, Barter took it upon himself to organize and mobilize a student-led response.

"I saw a lot of [university] groups with a lot of heart, but little information on Aceh," he says. Barter, with his knowledge of the region and his contacts, wanted to be able to help them. He put out a call to all his fellow grad students to attend the first meeting of what would come to be known as the Tsunami Working Group.

Barter says that he expected the working group to be dominated by political science and Asian studies students. But after the first couple of meetings, fewer and fewer people were showing up. The media had moved on to other news, and mid-term exams were pressing in. To Barter's surprise, the people who stuck around were the structural engineers, the sanitation engineers, the people from psychology.

"With some relief efforts, people receiving aid have no idea how long it's going to last. Suddenly, it just stops."

That, as it turned out, was good news. The scale of the disaster meant that immediate relief efforts called for specialized emergency response skills to meet basic needs: food, water, medical care for the living; and retrieval and identification of those who did not survive. But in the weeks that followed, needs in the region shifted from immediate relief to long-term restoration and rebuilding. Now the group had valuable skills to offer—and local contacts in Aceh to help them direct their work.

One of the problems, Barter explains, is that with some relief efforts, people receiving aid have no idea how long it's going to last. Suddenly, it just stops. A major concern for the UBC working group, from the very beginning, was to create relationships that could last several years, allowing local organizations to build on the work and sustain it over the long-term.

It's a vision that has driven much of the work of the Tsunami Working Group, and over the past year, two major initiatives have been launched in Indonesia.

The first is an internship program, developed in partnership with campus-based NGO YouLead, which allows UBC students to offer their skills to Indonesian organizations and community groups. The second is a project involving students and professors from the Structural Engineering Department, providing research and guidance for sound reconstruction in the Aceh region.

Third-year psychology student, Julia Gerlitz, was the first member of the working group to go into the field as an intern. In June, she joined an Indonesian NGO called KKSP (translated to English, "Information and Education Center for Child Rights"), working in the city of Medan, in Northern Sumatra.

"I came with the notion that I was just a lowly intern who would be guided and helped and taught many wonderful and interesting things," recalls Julia Gerlitz. "I was so naive!"

Being inland, Medan was spared the direct destruction caused by the tsunami, but the indirect effects have been enormous. Within hours of the massive wave slamming the west coast of the island, thousands of children found themselves without parents, without brothers or sisters, without homes. Many of them had little option but to flee Aceh and take to the streets of Medan in order to survive.

The children from Aceh face almost unbelievable challenges. In addition to losing their way of life, their families and their homes, moving to the neighbouring province means they have to contend with learning a different language and with commonly held attitudes that street children are "dirty, lazy, stupid, or criminals."

"It's so, so, so not true," Gerlitz stresses, with passion.

Since her arrival in Indonesia, Gerlitz has concentrated her efforts on working with these street children. She has spearheaded no less than four projects with the support of KKSP, including a programme to get street kids from Medan involved in the Aceh reconstruction.

"The KKSP has two separate focuses," explains Gerlitz, "rebuilding houses in Aceh for tsunami victims and conducting social programs with vulnerable children in the region. These two areas were completely separate and I found this difficult because so much effort, manpower, and funding was being directed towards building houses, that the programs with children were not advancing as they should. Therefore, I wanted a way to combine the two focuses of KKSP."

To Gerlitz, the idea of involving street kids with reconstruction made a lot of sense. "The older children need marketable skills such as carpentry and construction techniques so they can make a living in Medan and not be on the street busking and begging forever. KKSP, on the other hand, needs workers to help build the 800 houses they have funding for."

Gerlitz is clearly excited with the progress of the project to far. The children have been working hard to learn carpentry skills and have braved long days in the sun. The hardest part, she claims, was convincing the adults that the kids are dedicated and willing to learn. But—very slowly—barriers are being broken down, and perceptions about the street kids are changing.

The project has been a learning experience for everyone involved, including Gerlitz, who admits that work in the field took some getting used to. "I came with the notion that I was just a lowly intern who would be guided and helped and taught many wonderful and interesting things," she laughs. "I was so naive!"

"I've found, if you want to do anything, you have to get it going alone. From thinking up the idea, to writing the proposal, to implementing the programme, to figuring out the funding, to conducting the evaluation, follow-up, and report."

According to Barter, this sort of self-starter attitude is just what is required for volunteers to make a difference in the field.

Feedback from the Tsunami Working Group's Indonesian partners has been glowing. "The interns have been amazing," he says. "Julia has made such a difference to KKSP—their English skills, and their pride—not to mention helping the kids. Everyone loves her."

Adjusting to conditions in the field is not always easy, and Barter stresses the importance of a willingness to adapt, to live in less than ideal conditions, to work with what's available and to think on one's feet.

The engineering group—which is undertaking the second major project of the Tsunami Working Group—has proven to be equally adaptable and creative.

Thanks to financial support from UBC and CARE Housing Society, a team of five engineering students and Professor Ken Elwood arrived in Indonesia in June 2005. Engineering student Sahar Safaie thought she was prepared for work in the field—as a member of Engineers without Borders, she had been to trouble spots before, and she had seen pictures of the devastation in Indonesia. But she admits nothing compared to seeing it with her own eyes.

"Whole villages were destroyed and there was nothing left. People were living in tents and in camps. It was really sad, really shocking."

The main goals of the engineering group were to assess and report on reconstruction efforts and establish links with local NGOs in order to be able to provide help and advice down the road.

One important finding that emerged from the visit was that the emergency reconstruction efforts had, themselves, created a host of new difficulties.

Often, only the off-shore fault which caused the tsunami has been taken into account, but not the risk posed by the in-land Sumatra fault.

More than 116,000 houses were destroyed or damaged in the coastal regions of Aceh. Scores of NGOs have taken it upon themselves to construct temporary, semi-temporary or permanent housing for the internally displaced people. But, as the engineering team discovered, the result is a hodge-podge of buildings, some carefully built to withstand future earthquakes or tsunamis, others so flimsy you could knock them over with a sneeze.

The island of Sumatra sits in one of the world's most geologically active regions and the Sumatra Fault, which runs the length of the island, is capable of triggering a giant earthquake. The earthquake danger is something that many groups, in an effort to deal with the tsunami reconstruction, have overlooked. Often, only the offshore fault that caused the tsunami has been taken into account, but not the risk posed by the inland Sumatra fault.

"This time it didn't happen on land, but next time it might, because the risk is quite high there," Safaie says.

"Even people from international organizations are not really aware of this problem, and they don't take it seriously."

Most buildings built in Aceh use a technique called confined masonry construction, where walls are made by stacking bricks up between supporting concrete posts. If built properly, this type of construction can withstand earthquakes—in fact, many homes of this sort in Nias survived the later March 28, 2005 earthquake without damage. But all too often they are not built properly.

After the initial fact-finding mission, the engineering group set out to develop guidelines to ensure that reconstruction is as safe as possible, and considers all relevant risks. Combining information about local building techniques with earthquake engineering principles—and paying particular attention to research from South America, where these kinds of buildings are common—a comprehensive set of guidelines has been developed.

The task of ensuring that new construction can withstand the forces of nature is overwhelming, given that 97,000 homes need to be rebuilt over the next four years. But results from the engineers' research are already beginning to be felt.

Barter says that techniques recommended by the engineers to make new buildings safer are now being implemented, and the group is already planning a second trip back to Aceh to distribute their guidelines and to raise awareness about the need for proper building practices in the region.

Barter hopes that the efforts of the members of the Tsunami Working Group mark the start of a long-standing relationship between UBC and Indonesian organizations.

He explains that not only does it help local organizations, but it helps to overcome aid inequalities. The interns work for the locals, instead of the other way around. He and YouLead are working with the current interns to find other suitable placements, and harness the growing will of young people to get out and learn about the world while hopefully giving something back in return.

"It takes courage," reflects engineering student Safaie. "Not having any big organization behind you... just a bunch of empty-handed students saying, let's do something."

As it turned out, there was plenty to do.


Related reading: More about the history of Aceh


Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.

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