Starting Anew in Layeun

Indonesia, March 24, 2005

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    One of the dozen or so men who has returned to his former village of Layeun. Photo: Jordan Anderson/Mercy Corps Photo:

A bone-rattling one-hour drive still separates the village of Layeun from Banda Aceh, the capital of the tsunami-decimated Aceh province of Indonesia. Roadside scenes along the way provide mind-boggling reminders of the force carried by the wave. Entire bridge spans sit half-submerged in rivers, and sections of pavement the length of a short city block lie in ditches, folded and crumpled like stripped paint. Hastily constructed temporary bridges and pitted gravel track lay in its place.

Such obstacles have not prevented dozens of former residents from traveling the 20 miles to their former village from the camp in which they have been living since the tsunami displaced them. Today, in this small coastal village, local residents are meeting with Mercy Corps workers, outlining the tremendous struggles that they still face and relating the small successes that have allowed the new version of their old village to flourish.

In Layeun’s main village, a small row of temporary buildings is nestled next to a small road. A counterpart row can be seen springing up 500 yards away, across the brown, eroded rice paddies that cover the coastal plain. In one of the buildings, a gathering of recently returned villagers sit on the floor across from representatives from Mercy Corps. The topic of discussion today is obvious, but not necessarily simple: how can Mercy Corps help those who wish to return rebuild their lives here?

Before the tsunami, Layeun was a modest village – population 905 – approximately halfway between the coastal cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. A café by the main road sold coffee and tea, and fishing and rice farming provided the backbone of the local economy. A health clinic and primary school stood nearby.

The effects of the tsunami on Layeun are striking. The waves washed away all previous infrastructure. A line of denuded vegetation 40 feet high runs along the hillside. A hill that used to bisect the village is no longer a hill at all. The 215 homes that existed before the tsunami have all been destroyed. An estimated 702 villagers survived.

Difficult decisions

Most of those who were spared are currently in camps for internally displaced persons or living with other families. Layeun’s survivors have several options. First, they can remain for some length of time in the camps or with their host families. However, the camps are at best a short-term option, and most families are keen on departing. Those with host families are usually in tents or temporary housing on the property of family or friends, and don’t wish to rely too long on the generosity of others.

Their second option is to move to government barracks. The Indonesian government is also building barracks across the countryside of Aceh, which provide more privacy and facilities than the camps. These barracks are also intended to be temporary, but many observers fear that they may become permanent as resources thin and momentum to develop permanent housing wanes.

The third option is to return to their former village. The few dozen villagers in Layeun today have chosen to rebuild on the site of their former homes. At this point, most are men, as the lack of schools, the difficulty of travel, and the scarcity of services deter the majority of women and children. But that is changing.

Determination on every face

Today, the few dozen villagers who have returned to Layeun are making the best of a trying situation. Mercy Corps is helping them realize the futures they choose for themselves. The agency provided the metal sheeting, nails and other materials that have been used to create the few simple structures in which the returnees are living. Mercy Corps has also provided flexible support to help residents build additional structures and restart the fishing activities that provided the livelihood for many Layeun residents.

Aside from basic services and shelter, Mercy Corps is examining ways to provide support for health care and education. This support is crucial to drawing most of the villagers back. The men in Layeun state emphatically that the children will return where there is a teacher.

Even with so much ahead of those who have returned, determination is evident on every face today in Layeun. The future may be unclear, but the intention of the residents is not. Buchari, a Layeun resident who has returned to Layeun with his wife and two children, is unequivocal. “My forefathers fished in this village,” he says. “Why would I want to be anywhere else?”