Aceh: On the anniversary of devastation, smiles are everywhere

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The physical reconstruction of Aceh is amazing, but more importantly, livelihoods have been restored.
I had the fortune to visit Aceh last week. It had been three years since my last visit, when I vividly recalled the day my country cried – Dec. 26, 2004. Four years ago today, the coast lines of Indonesia’s westernmost province were swept by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Over 200,000 people perished in the havoc wreaked by one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesians and the world responded generously to address the humanitarian needs and reconstruction effort that followed.

Four years on, when I stepped foot on Aceh’s newly restored Sultan Iskandarmuda Airport, the results of rebuilding were very much evident. I drove through the streets of Banda Aceh without blinking my eyes that much. The first thing that came to mind was the scale of it all: Aceh is indeed one of the biggest reconstruction efforts since post-World War II Europe.

The physical reconstruction is amazing: houses rebuilt, schools erected, roads paved, and hospitals restored. More importantly, however, livelihoods have been restored. Street-side markets are bustlingly vibrant. Four years ago, shocked by the tragedy and the loss of loved ones, every tsunami survivor I met understandably didn’t have much to say but grief. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the sorrow they went through. Fast forward four years, every traditional coffee shop and market in Aceh are full of people looking forward to the future. Smiles are everywhere.

I called up several friends upon my recent arrival in Aceh. Four years ago, I first heard the news of a tsunami from Azwar Hassan – a dear friend of Acehnese origin. He was one of the first people on a flight to Aceh after the tsunami. In the aftermath of the disaster, Azwar scoured the streets of Banda Aceh in search of his close relatives. His grim text messages kept me abreast of the situation, while at the same time powerless of not being able to do anything to help out.

The tsunami helped Azwar found his true cause. He left his well-paying job in Jakarta to start a grassroots organization in Aceh. Four years on, the movement he founded gave opportunities to thousands of Acehnese to rebuild their lives through microcredit schemes, scholarships, and training opportunities.

The story of Aceh is a story of perseverance. Armed with thousands of people like Azwar, the province was built back better. Aceh is also no longer a conflict region. The peace dividend holds. It is a success story that Indonesians, the people of Aceh, and the international community should be proud of.


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