Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Three Months After The Catastrophic Earthquake & Tsunami (12 of 13)

The Jakarta Post
Saturday, March 26, 2005

Acehnese women begin rebuilding lives

Women play a prominent role in society, especially in the family. Yet, their existence is often neglected by many, including the government. The Jakarta Post's Nani Afrida has been looking into roles that women can play to sustain the lives of their families and community in Aceh in the wake of the tsunami.

"Home sweet home." This motto explains the desire of tsunami victims to return to their homes, even if they been leveled. Many people from the coastal areas of Banda Aceh have chose to return to their homes after living for two months in refugee camps or government barracks.

Fatimah, 50, and Nurhayati, 54, residents of Tuha subdistrict, Aceh Besar regency, were two of the people who have been motivated by the motto.

After returning home, the two women joined hands with other residents in the subdistrict to build modest 4 by 6 meter barrack blocks. Each barrack block houses between four and six women.

The weather in the subdistrict is hot and humid. Almost all the trees were swept away by the tidal wave. The situation is made worse by the fact that rubble from buildings is scattered everywhere, making the air dusty. It would take at least one week to clear up the rubble.

A total of 40 people were killed in the subdistrict. But, only Fatimah, Nurhayati and 10 other women have opted to return home. The other women refused to return home and now live in government barracks in safe areas or with relatives in inland areas not affected by the tsunami.

"We have no relatives outside the subdistrict, so we had no choice," said Nurhayati.

Nurhayati recalled that she survived the tsunami as she and her husband were out of the subdistrict it happened. Nurhayati believes that most of her family and children died in the disaster.

As she entered the subdistrict for the first time after the disaster, her eyes glistened with tears. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing except rubble and debris.

"Our subdistrict used to be a densely populated area," said Nurhayati.

According to local statistics, the subdistrict used to be inhabited by over 1,800 residents. After the tsunami disaster, only 232 people were left, 40 of whom are women.

The women said that they would resume their roles in the community, although they were short in number.

"We have no problem with it. The main problem will be for the men as they have will have to look for wives outside the subdistrict," said Fatimah.

Returning to one's home is always eagerly anticipated, but many problems now face the women. They expressed concerns about the security situation arising out of the war between the Indonesian Military and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Tuha subdistrict is not far from the Ujung Pancu highlands, which are a GAM stronghold. As the area is a GAM base, the Indonesian Military (TNI) is also active there. The area was once heavily bombed by OV-10 Bronco planes when the TNI launched a major offensive on GAM bases in May 2003.

At first, Fatimah and Nurhayati had hopes that the tsunami would change the situation and lead to an end to the conflict, but this hope has turned out to be false. "Until today, TNI soldiers are still often patrolling around our neighborhood. They often visit Ujung Pancu in search of GAM members and, of course, they pass by our neighborhood," said Nurhayati.

According to Nurhayati, none of residents in Tuha subdistrict were GAM members. GAM members in the area were normally residents from the neighboring subdistrict of Lamteungoh.

GAM members often descended from the highlands to Tuha subdistrict to visit relatives or seek food. The Tuha residents cannot not turn them away even if it means they become the targets of TNI troops. The residents are frequently interrogated and a good number of them are traumatized by the experience.

"Until now, I still tremble when I see people in military uniforms. I think that it would be better dealing with the tsunami disaster than be interrogated by soldiers," said Nurhayati.

Despite the mounting challenges -- ranging from hot weather to security -- returning home is a crucial step on the road to building a new life, said Nurhayati.

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