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The Long Walk Home

Indonesia, February 14, 2005

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    Rusli surveys the area where his village, Layeun, once stood. Rusli, who now lives in the Mattaie refugee camp in Banda Aceh, has decided it's time to return home and begin to rebuild his life in Layeun. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

It is early morning at Camp Mattaie, but already the bustle from the overcrowded tent camp has begun: children playing in any free patch of dirt, babies crying and women beginning to cook their food rations in massive pots over an open flame. The flies have begun to descend, attracted by the refuse of hundreds of families living in cramped quarters without enough latrines or sanitation facilities.

Mr. Rusli and Mr. Abdullah are sitting patiently at the entrance of the camp in a makeshift tent that also serves as a café. After living in the camp for almost a month, they have decided it is time to go home. As they wait for their ride to arrive, they discuss the journey that lies ahead.

For Rusli, this will be his first time to return to his home of Layeun, a coastal fishing village that was completely destroyed by the tsunami. Over 800 of the 1200 residents were reportedly killed.

“I am going to see what is there and spend a few days helping to clean-up and start to rebuild my village,” says Rusli. “Then I will come back here to the camp and prepare to move home, if I think it is possible.”

This trip is part of Mercy Corps’ “go-and-see” program. The international humanitarian aid organization is facilitating go-and-see visits for people displaced by the tsunami and who expressed an interest in returning to their homes, thus enabling them to assess the possibilities of a permanent return.

Abdullah has already been on a go-and-see visit with Mercy Corps to Layeun and has since visited his village four times in preparation for his return. Today, he is going back for good, although you would not know it from his appearance. He does not have a suitcase or any bags. He carries only a small day-backpack.

“It has everything I own in it,” he says simply. “Everything else was taken by the tsunami.”

A Long Ride

The Mercy Corps vehicle arrives and Rusli and Abdullah join the team for the long trip. Although the tent camp is only 15 miles from their village of Layeun, it will take over five hours to reach their destination. The road is passable for just the first five miles of the trip: the remaining ten miles requires a hard trek through a devastated coastal strip of land where not a single house, bridge or identifiable structure remains standing.

Despite the devastation and nearly uninhabitable conditions of these coastal villages, many displaced people in Aceh have expressed a desire to return to their homes to engage in their former economic activities such as fishing and to restart their lives and livelihoods. Mercy Corps is focused on supporting these communities who want to return by providing transportation, temporary shelter, water and sanitation services, basic household items such as cooking utensils, bedding and generators.

Mercy Corps is also providing cash-for-work programs to remove rubble, collect the dead bodies and begin the reconstruction process, while simultaneously ensuring the people can earn money to meet their immediate family needs.

“Our strategy with the go-and-see program is to focus on the people who can and want to return to their places of origin,” says Peter Stevenson, a Mercy Corps Program Officer who is accompanying Abdullah and Rusli on the trip. “While this may be only a proportion of the displaced population, we believe that the displaced deserve options beyond living in an IDP camp or moving to government-sponsored barracks.”

A Difficult Return

After four hours on foot forging several rivers and difficult terrain, the group descends down a hill and looks over Layeun, or rather, what remains. Rusli, visibly shaken by the sight of his destroyed village, sits by the side of the road and quietly weeps. Like so many others, he lost more than just his home and livelihood in the tsunami.

“That is where my house used to be,” he says as he points out into the twisted mass of rubble that stretches down to the ocean. “My wife and baby are lost somewhere in that wreckage or maybe they were swept out to sea.”

But around the bend of the coastline, at the end of the strip of carnage that was once Layeun, lies a glimmer of unexpected hope: what might one day be the new town of Layeun. Today, it is just two make-shift tarps propped up with wooden poles. It has become a temporary shelter for about 150 men of Layeun who have returned home and begun the hard work of rebuilding their community.

Rusli and Abdullah are warmly greeted by their neighbors, and the group is graciously invited into the main tent. The bare ground serves as the floor as well as their bed, as they do not have any mats or mattresses. In the corner of the tent is the food supply for the entire village of 150. The village elder estimates there is enough food to last another three days - after that he does not know what they will do. There are only a couple pots for cooking, and the people share a few tin cups and plates among the entire group for eating and drinking.

But, despite these extremely difficult conditions, the men in Layeun have a spirit and energy to them that was not evident in the people at the displaced persons camp of Mattaie. Outside the tent, the sound of hammers pounding and sawing goes on without interruption. A group of men are busy building a small warehouse for their food items and tools. Another group are cleaning fish they have just caught from the sea and preparing lunch. Everywhere people are engaged in hard work.

"We Belong Here"

There is an unmistakable buzz here. Even in Rusli the change in his eyes is evident after only a few moments of being back home. He seems infused with a new found energy.

“This is my home,” says Rusli. “Here we have a future. If we work hard, we know there is hope. In the camps we have no future. We belong here.”

After hospitable offerings of coffee and biscuits to the Mercy Corps team (which were graciously refused numerous times so as to not deplete their already dangerously low food supply) the meeting began.

As part of Mercy Corps’ goal in supporting “spontaneous returns”, or communities who have decided on their own that they want to return to their villages of origin, the Mercy Corps team has come to Layeun to listen to the community articulate what they need to rebuild and restart their lives. The meeting is straightforward: the people in Layeun have already developed well-thought-out plans for returning home and are happy that Mercy Corps wants to assist them.

“We have the will and energy to rebuild our village,” says Abdullah, “but we do not have the resources. Everything we had before is gone. We need tools and material so we can build shelters, we need jerry cans so we can collect and store drinking water, we need stoves, cooking pots, plates, and beds. But if we have some help, we can do it.”

Clearly, the Mercy Corps program of supporting communities who choose to spontaneously return to their villages will depend a great deal on the spirit, energy, and desire of the people with whom they work. In Layeun that spirit is undeniable.

As the Mercy Corps team prepares to return to Banda Aceh, Rusli sums up the mood of the people of Layeun.

“I will go back to Mattaie camp in a few days to organize things, but then I will come back here as quickly as possible,” he says. “There is so much work I must get started on here, and there is no reason to wait any longer. It is time for me to come home.”