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Five years after Indonesia's tsunami, Banda Aceh has bounced back

When Wahyu first saw the wall of water coming toward his home, he thought the world was coming to an end. But now, five years on, he believes the tsunami that devastated this city was a gift from God.

His mother and younger brother were among the 170,000 people who died here that day, as was his infant niece, ripped from his arms by the force of the water. The family's small concrete home was crushed and Wahyu was carried nearly two kilometres by the waves until he grabbed hold of a mobile phone tower and clung to it for his life. The next thing he remembers, he was surrounded by "hundreds, thousands" of bodies.

But despite all that he and the region lost, Wahyu (who, like many Indonesians, has just one name) believes that the tsunami has, in fact, made Banda Aceh a better place.

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"The tsunami was God's blessing to us," he says, standing atop the Apung 1, a massive barge that was carried from the harbour three kilometres inland and now sits by the rubble of his family's former home.

"Before, we were fighting [in a civil war]" explains Wahyu, who now makes his living by conducting $1 tours of the boat for curious foreigners. "Because of the tsunami, we had to stop and work together. God gave us this peace."

This sentiment is surprisingly common on the northern tip of Sumatra, ground zero for the tsunami that roared across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, killing about 170,000 people, 35,000 of whom were never found.

A psychological assessment conducted after the tsunami found the people here to be "extremely resilient," showing far fewer signs of mental or emotional trauma than researchers expected in a population that had witnessed so much horror.

However, fatalism also may play a big role. It is inherent in the brand of Islam practised in this part of the world, which has long been extremely devout and seems even more so since the great tragedy.

Those who see a divine hand in the tsunami now seek a different kind of restoration for Aceh. They want the city once known as "the veranda of Mecca" - because it was here that the religion first entered the region centuries ago - to reclaim its place as the Islamic capital of Southeast Asia.

The tour guide: His ship came in

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Whatever the reason, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that, just over five years later, life here really is better.

Not only has more than $6-billion in foreign aid and reconstruction money been directed to Aceh, the disaster brought an end to the region's 30-year war between the separatist Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government.

Many of the tsunami dead were buried in two mass graves, one near the newly built airport and the other near the coast. There are a few other reminders of the day the ocean came ashore: ships like Apung-1 that were deposited inland and the occasional decapitated palm tree. Otherwise, today's Banda Aceh looks much like any other mid-sized, slightly affluent city in Southeast Asia.

Many Acehnese see signs of a divine hand in what happened. The survival of the city's 130-year-old main mosque is held up as proof of divine involvement, and Wahyu snickers that the Apung-1 landed right on the home of his richest neighbours.

"They were stingy, so this was their punishment," he says.

You could just as easily credit the flood of foreign aid workers and the 800-odd non-governmental organizations (many of them faith-based) that arrived in Aceh to launch an unprecedented relief effort. The biggest helping hand the world has ever given to a place the size of Aceh, it has transformed an impoverished, war-torn hellhole into a bustling city of 210,000 people who believe the world cares about them.

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Throughout the surrounding province, about 140,000 new houses have been built, along with 1,700 schools, as well as hundreds of mosques, airports and government buildings.

"They had so much money that they were able to pay all the bribes, all the middle men, pay for all the villas and four-by-fours, pay off the mafia and still do all the reconstruction and still have some money left over," says John Penny, head of the European Union mission here.

Mr. Penny, after two years of battling with local corruption and the thick bureaucracies of international aid, is cynical. But, when pressed, he acknowledges that the big picture is a rosy one.

"It's been a success, it's been a big success."

The reformed rebel: From hunted to hunter

For most of his adult life, Kamarullah has lived in the dense forests of Aceh province. Instead of going to high school, when he was 17, he went to fight with the Free Aceh Movement in the jungle, where two years ago, his youngest daughter, Raida, was born.

Now, Kamarullah is trying to give something back to the forests that protected him for so long. After the peace treaty five years ago that brought an end to Aceh's 30-year civil war, the former guerrilla fighter started to work as a forest ranger, drawing a salary from the conservation group Flora and Fauna International as he searches for illegal loggers in the Ulu Masen rain forest.

"I lived in the forest, I grew up in the forest, so I feel very connected to it," he says, his weathered face making him look older than his 31 years. The father of four is clearly uncomfortable recounting his warrior past. "It's very difficult for me to remember those days. ... Before, we were struggling for independence. Now, I just want to participate any way I can."

Unknown at the time to Kamarullah, the changes that would set him on course for civilian life began within hours of the 2004 tsunami. As the scale of the devastation set in, senior members of the Free Aceh Movement, better known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, quickly sized up the situation and decided to lay down their arms.

"Without the tsunami, we would not have had peace," says Mohammed Nur Djuli, a rebel negotiator during the peace talks.

"GAM could have fought for another 30 years, if necessary. But when the tsunami happened, we immediately decided that nothing mattered but the survival of the people. We decided there and then that we had to have peace."

The two sides compromised: Aceh received limited autonomy - what Mr. Nur Djuli calls "70 per cent independence" - in exchange for remaining part of Indonesia. In the elections that followed, Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM member who escaped from prison during the tsunami, became governor.

Peace was arguably more important to Aceh's reconstruction than the flood of aid money. Newcomers may remark on the freshly paved roads, rebuilt homes and new four-star hotels, but those who lived through it all are more impressed by what is no longer here: the military checkpoints, the curfews, the constant fear.

The homecoming: Life changed forever

When the ocean came ashore - a torrent of brown water carrying debris, boats, cars and flailing bodies - it all but obliterated Kaju, a tiny fishing hamlet on the ocean.

The only survivors were Kaju's battered mosque and those lucky enough to be away that morning.

Khairani, who was 45 and living with her elderly parents, got up early that day and headed to the market in Banda Aceh, which was on slightly higher ground. She never saw her parents again.

Khairani was finally able to come back three years later, when she moved into a new two-room concrete house constructed by the Canadian Red Cross.

Her life today is completely changed. In a relief camp after the tsunami, she met a long-time acquaintance who had lost his wife but not his children. "We saw each other a lot in the camp and decided to get married," Khairani explains somewhat sheepishly as she hangs out the wash.

"The tsunami definitely changed my life."

Two doors away, Jafar Usman is checking his net for holes after a morning of fishing. He, too, was away, with his wife and youngest child, when the waves hit. Their 22-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son were swept away, which would be enough to crush many people, but Mr. Usman just smiles. His children are gone, he acknowledges, but life must go on and, with the war over, life here is better.

He laughs gently when asked if he is scared to live so close to the water again. "It is up to God whether there will be another tsunami. God could send us three more tsunamis, or five. There is nothing we can do about it."

The faithful: 'Monster' gets bigger

With the civil war and natural disaster behind them, what kind of future does its people imagine for Aceh?

Some talk of capitalizing on all the foreign attention since the tsunami to build a tourism industry like the one that draws millions to Indonesian islands such as Bali. Others point to the peninsula's rain forests and see a boom in ecotourism.

But a great many have a completely different vision; they say it's time for the rest of the world to leave them alone.

Recent months have seen a string of mysterious shootings that targeted foreigners, including one bullet that just missed Mr. Penny of the EU.

We are Muslims, and we like to think we are pious Muslims, but there has never been a law before about how women should dress in Aceh. Nur Djuli, former GAM negotiator

At the core of the debate is the system of Islamic sharia law implemented in 2003, while Aceh was still under direct rule from Jakarta.

Billed at the time as a concession to the separatists, although the GAM is avowedly secular, sharia is viewed by many here as an imposition at odds with Acehnese traditions. But to the dismay of those who dream of Aceh as a tourist destination, it has become unstoppable.

Trucks of morality police clad in green patrol city streets, seeking women without head scarves or unmarried couples sitting too close to one another.

This week, Indonesia's Supreme Court voted overwhelmingly to uphold a law that let the government impose a five-year jail sentence for heresy. In September, Parliament approved a law allowing adulterers to be stoned to death.

Even politicians from the ruling GAM dare not speak out. "If people are asked if they support sharia, they feel they have to say yes or be labelled as anti-Islamic," says Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, founder of Flower Aceh, a women's-rights organization, who says things have gone too far.

"The sharia police do not have a full understanding of the law. Their obligation is only to give people advice" on what is forbidden, "but they often pick women up and detain or search them. This is beyond their responsibilities."

As a result, hotels in Medan, a city 10 hours away in neighbouring North Sumatra, are often booked solid with Acehnese escaping to let their hair down.

"We are Muslims, and we like to think we are pious Muslims, but there has never been a law before about how women should dress in Aceh. If people dressed conservatively, it was because they were brought up to do so," Mr. Nur Djuli, the former GAM negotiator, says with a sigh, adding that his own daughters would rather be in neighbouring Malaysia.

Sharia, he says, is "a monster that keeps getting bigger."

The next time: Fate will decide

Teuku Alvinsyahrin's third-floor window at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Centre gives him a stunning view of where the Indian Ocean gently licks at the edge of Banda Aceh.

Even now, memories come flooding back. His sister was to marry on Dec. 26, 2004, but her groom-to-be and his family were washed away. As terrible as those memories are, Mr. Alvinsyahrin's job is to imagine what would happen if the water ever rose again.

The TDMRC was founded in 2005 to analyze tsunami and earthquake data from around the world and prepare for the next one. But it's a hard sell, he says. "My fellow Acehnese subscribe to the idea that you just give up your life to fate, that everything that happens comes from God."

He sounds irritated, but he says the same attitude helped Aceh recover. He was in the United States when, eight months after the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and he saw how quickly victims looked for someone to blame.

Aceh, however, just absorbed the blow and moved on. "There's a different perspective here on how people look at disasters. For those who survived, they come to the realization that this is a test from God - this is something we have to go through."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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