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A people reborn after the tsunami disaster

Indonesia, December 22, 2009

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Judy Vickers

The Edinburgh Evening News, Scotland
December, 2009

Her brightly coloured shawl, a splash of yellow against the vivid green of the rice fields where she was working, was what first attracted the aid workers to Nurhayati. That and the 52-year-old's merry laughter as she chattered to her friends.

"She was just one of those people you are naturally drawn to," explains Roger Burks, of Edinburgh-based charity Mercy Corps. "She was the most amazing person I met while I was in Banda Aceh. She was very charismatic."

Yet when he and his colleague, in the Indonesian village of Rima Jeunue earlier this year as part of the charity's five-year programme to help the tsunami-devastated area, began speaking to Nurhayati about the disaster, her smile fell away.

"Suddenly she had this very serious look on her face," says Roger.

Little wonder – five years ago this Boxing Day more than 230,000 people in 11 countries perished as an unprecedented tidal wave tore through their homes and communities. Indonesia's Aceh province was by far the hardest hit with 170,000 deaths – and among them were Nurhayati's children, son-in-law and grandchildren. While her husband survived the tsunami, he has since also died. "She lost almost her entire family to the tsumani," says Roger.

Nurhayati was only saved because she was in the mountains above her village, which lies just yards from the ocean, collecting firewood when the deadly wave struck. She scrambled back to the village as soon as the water subsided, but there was nothing left – only the foundations of the houses. Four-fifths of the population were dead and the rest had fled.

For the next few months, Nurhayati lived in a camp for the homeless, but five years on she's back in her village and in the rice fields again– thanks to the generosity of Edinburgh Evening News readers. In the wake of the tsunami, an amazing £622,679 was raised by readers through the Evening News' Capital Appeal, run jointly with Edinburgh City Council and Mercy Corps, specifically for the devastated city of Banda Aceh and the surrounding province of Aceh.

John Cunningham, Mercy Corps director of fundraising, says: "It was a great response by the people of Edinburgh. The appeal raised substantial funds which were used in the immediate recovery phase, and to fund recovery programmes which we developed to help local people in the Aceh area get back on their feet. We are still working with local communities to support their economic and social recovery."

A five-year programme was launched with that money, which began with projects such as the cash-for-work scheme, where Acehese people were paid to clear the crumbled buildings, wrecked fishing boats and fields made useless for farming by the salt water. Local people, many of them left homeless themselves, were employed and trained by the charity as workers.

Able to speak the local dialects and with an understanding of the deeply pious Islamic communities, they have worked with non-Indonesian staff from Mercy Corps on projects such as rebuilding mosques, giving grants to small businesses, training midwives and supporting banks and microfinance projects. The transformation from a shattered community to a vibrant, optimistic one has been astounding.

Roger, who was back there in the summer, says: "I kept looking around for signs of remnants of the tsunami but really there was nothing, except what was left as a memorial, like a boat in the centre of the city which was left there by the wave. You can't rebuild unless the people want to, unless the spirit is there to restore their lives and rebuild their economy, so it's really a testament to them."

What struck Roger most in this deeply devout Islamic region was the strength of the women, many of whom lost their menfolk who were out working on fishing boats or in the fields when the tidal wave struck. He says: "I didn't think the women would be as outspoken and taking charge as much as they did. It was obvious talking to these women who had driven the transformation and rebuilding."

He was deeply moved by Nurhayati's tenacity. Despite losing almost all her family, she had returned home and joined Mercy Corps' cash-for-work programme

Now she's part of a rice farmers' co-operative and has learned new, more efficient rice farming techniques from Mercy Corps experts.

Even during the darkest months following the tsunami, there were signs of life getting back to some kind of normality. There was a boom in weddings, followed by an upsurge in births. Roger knows this because some of the businesses that Mercy Corps has supported with grants make cakes, biscuits and sweets and they have been inundated with orders for celebrations.

One of those cake-making businesses is based in the village of Lam Teungoh, on the outskirts of Banda Aceh. Right next to the ocean, it was badly hit by the 2004 catastrophe, and most of the villagers drowned. Sukria, a 29-year-old mother of two, lost her husband but managed to flee to the hills with Mohammed, then two and Adelia, then three. For days she foraged for whatever food she could find in the mountains to keep her and her children alive, then spent seven months in a camp, before returning to what was left of her village.

"When I first moved back here after the tsunami, I lived in a shelter made of boards and debris I found lying around," she explains.

With the help of a grant from Mercy Corps, she and a group of 25 other women now run a business making cakes and pastries. "Now I've not only rebuilt my own house but our women's group has our own building where we can meet and prepare food for our small business," she says, with pride.

"People do talk a lot about how much support they have got along the way," says Roger.

"Everyone I talked to expressed their gratitude. They said to me: When you go back and talk to the people who helped us, please tell them thank you."

VITAL AID

THE Capital Appeal was launched in January 2005 in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami. It was a joint campaign, run by city-based charity Mercy Corps, the Evening News and Edinburgh City Council.

&149 Banda Aceh was chosen to be "twinned" with Edinburgh and Lothian for a number of reasons; it one of the areas worst hit by the disaster, Mercy Corps already had links to the region, and there were parallels between the two areas – both are dominated by a historic city and surrounded by a more rural area, dotted with small towns.

• The appeal's target was £500,000 by July 2005, but that target was smashed by June. The final figure raised by Evening News readers was £622, 679.

• A five-year programme was set up with the Capital Appeal money, which draws to a close in May

• So far, 813,827 people have directly benefited from Mercy Corps' work in the region with a further 1,156,465 benefiting indirectly.

• 3,185 farming households, like Nurhayati's, have been trained on sustainable techniques.

• Since 2006, Mercy Corps' community development programme has completed more than 600 infrastructure projects, which has given more than 65,000 people access to improved social, health and sanitation facilities.

• 12,655 people have been given access to small loans and credits to fund and expand their farms or businesses.

• Mercy Corps has helped establish 168 project committees that have been trained in subjects such as compliance, financial reporting and book-keeping and successfully assisted 40 villages in producing their own Village Plans and Infrastructure Maintenance Plans to guide future development.

• Local accountability and democracy has also been improved, with Mercy Corps assisting the district government in holding village leader elections in 219 villages throughout Aceh.