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The number just kept getting bigger and bigger. At first it was a staggering 13,000. The next day, over 25,000. And then, 58,000. By the end of the week, on January 1st, 2005, the death toll of the Asian Tsunami had reached 122,000. Yet the number kept climbing, and nobody knew when it would stop.
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I read the updates every morning in the paper on the way to work, comfortably seated on the Metro. It was impossible to grasp the scale of the devastation. In the space of a few hours, thousands of people were killed without warning by an earthquake and three massive waves, each as high as a 10-storey building. The death toll settled around 270,000. How do you even begin to recover from something like that?
In 2006, I had the chance to find out first-hand. I moved to Aceh, Indonesia, where most of the Tsunami’s victims—about 165,000—lost their lives. My employer, the International Finance Corporation, had just set up an office there, with funding from Australia, to help the private sector get back on its feet. For the following two years, we worked with shrimp farmers , small businesses , and the Acehnese government to promote private sector development  and investment.
The worst was over before I arrived, but the stories were still fresh. The government official who lost a child, and adopted an orphan. The young woman who was saved by a stranger, pulled out from under the water at the last minute. The old man at the fish-grill who said American doctors took a chunk of wood out of his skull on a navy ship.
But the Tsunami didn’t only destroy. It also connected. The Acehnese had been cut off from the rest of the world for decades because of an armed conflict. Suddenly, Aceh was full of outsiders—both foreigners and other Indonesians—to help with biggest recovery effort in history, led by a newly-created reconstruction agency, Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (BRR) .
Reconstruction was often chaotic, with thousands of projects underway doing everything from building houses to providing medical care to land titling. Coordination was difficult. Planning was rushed. Logistics were mind-boggling. And everything depended on one bureaucracy or another, making progress seem unbelievably slow.
But somehow, it worked. Most of the people I’ve stayed in touch with there, both foreigners and Acehnese, say that life is better:
● The conflict is over, for good. The election of the former rebel leader, Irwandi Yusuf, as Aceh’s first governor, secured the peace.
● The reconstruction was a success. Tsunami-ravaged areas have been rebuilt, the road system has been vastly improved, and a new international airport and seaport have connected the province with the outside world.
● Schools and universities are packed, with many students coming from areas outside Banda Aceh.
The reconstruction effort also gave Acehnese people new skills. Amy Sjahrir, a former NGO employee now working at a tourist agency, says that training and funding provided by NGOs helped “transform Aceh into an open-minded community” which accepts new ideas.
Guido van Hofwegen, a Dutch national who set up a water filter manufacturing company  with his wife Liese, says Banda Aceh is now a good place to do business. “The municipality is clean and getting licenses is easy,” he says. “It is also good that there are so many well-trained ex-NGO workers available on the labor market.”
But they also point out some worrying developments. Employment is still a problem. Opportunities in rural areas remain limited.
Nevertheless, I’m optimistic about Aceh’s future. Yes, there are problems. But now Aceh has the institutions and the mindset to tackle them in a democratic, peaceful way. More importantly, the Acehnese have proven that they can face unbearable hardships and overcome overwhelming obstacles to make things better.
If you live or work in Aceh, I’d be interested in hearing your views about its future. Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below.