Massive Road for Tsunami-Hit Aceh Flounders

KUALA BUBUN, Aceh ~ Zainal Abidin, 35, queues for a raft across the Kuala Bubun river in Aceh province near ghost-like crumbling bridge pylons, all that remains of the road that was washed away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Like the rest of Aceh, Abidin awaits the US-funded construction of the mostly new 243-kilometre highway linking the provincial capital Banda Aceh at the tip of Sumatra to the town of Meulaboh and the rest of the island.

The delayed emblematic project – the largest planned in the wake of the catastrophe that killed 168,000 people in worst-hit Aceh alone — has been plagued by wrangling over its route and land purchases.

“I’ve been lining up for two hours,” complains Zainal, a fuel-seller with half a dozen plastic containers strapped to his motorcycle. Prior to the tsunami, he made three trips a day down to Meulaboh to refill his containers.

“But with the raft I can only do one trip, and sometimes my fuel gets damaged from so much waiting in the sun,” he says.

Nearly two years after the US Agency for International Development (USAID) took on the task of rebuilding the vital west coast road, construction has barely begun.

“Maybe we’ll start building in 2007,” says Tommy Nardipta, an engineer with a team contracted to work for the agency.

“It’s a long time for people here to wait,” he concedes, standing waist-deep in muddy water as he surveys the riverbed where a 90-meter-long bridge will be built, eventually easing Zainal’s plight.

The road before the tsunami was a simple six-meter-wide, two-lane affair with very little drainage. It took five hours to traverse. Now it’s a 10-hour back-breaking journey, sometimes impassable even in a four-wheel drive.

USAID handed the Indonesian agency charged with reconstruction in Aceh, BRR, a first design of the major part of the road in mid-June this year.

The vision is a 30-metre-wide corridor, with a seven-meter-wide stretch of asphalt for two lanes, with room to expand later on. The price tag: US$245 million.

Delays getting the first blueprint in have occurred due to an apparent lack of coordination with aid agencies on the ground, which have started projects in the road’s path, along with heated discussions about the price of land.

USAID says 5.7 kilometers of road – in two sections – is ready to be constructed. To complete the remainder, the BRR now has to snap up more than 33,000 individual parcels.

“Imagine yourself knocking on 33,000 doors. This is a very difficult process,” says Roy Ventura Jr., a veteran of US infrastructure projects who has been in charge of the project for USAID since May.

USAID says the project will be completed in late 2009. Meanwhile, it has been paying its main contractor, the Indonesian state-owned company Wijaya Karya, some $100,000 a month for continued maintenance of the old road.

BRR chief of operations Eddy Purwanto says the agency has mobilized $10 million for purchases this year, and defends it against criticism that this process has taken too long to get underway.

He insists that the BRR could not start acquiring land without a plan.

“That’s why we waited until the middle of June, to get the exact right of way in certain areas. Now we’re moving rapidly,” he says.

Still, it’s not a simple process.

“Most of the land is in rural areas and most people don’t have land titles so the proof of ownership is based on the people’s knowledge, the village heads, the religious leaders,” Purwanto tells AFP.

“So we need the agreement of all the neighbors if we want to settle land acquisitions.”

Threats have been aired to withdraw the US funding, he says.

“That can still possibly happen, but considering the significant investment – a lot of money has been put in – and when they look at the progress, that’s a positive factor.”

The village of Pudeng, two hours south of Banda Aceh, epitomizes the mind-boggling challenge.

“We come across a grave, change path, then another, change again, and then a house,” gestures Mawardi, a Wijaya Karya worker doing survey work to map out parts of the route yet to be finalized.

“So now the process is stalled.”

Pudeng’s village head Mohammad Yusuf Adami insists no one can touch 30 Dutch colonial-era graves left intact by the tsunami.

“Recently two people cut down the big tree in the middle of the graveyard and immediately fell sick and died,” he recounts.

“Better demolish the school; you can always rebuild. Not the graves.”

Nearby, red and yellow flags marking the middle and edges of the future road are dotted through a cluster of wooden shelters and concrete foundations for houses that were supposed to come.

Muhammad Amin, 40, who lost his wife in the tsunami and lives with his two children in a temporary shelter, saw construction of his permanent brick house – on the remnants of the old – stopped by the road design.

“The village head told me I could get compensated so I could buy new land,” the frail-looking man says, gesturing at a red flag planted in his backyard.

“I’m not moving out of here if I don’t get compensated.”

BRR plans to rebuild houses and schools affected by the new route.

“I don’t know anymore; I don’t know where to go,” says Muhammad’s neighbor, 60 year-old Rahman.

“The road, we need it. The house, we need it too. But first we need a house,” says the old man with a toothless smile.

Meanwhile, a colonial-era railway that was once the lifeblood of  Aceh could paradoxically be revived in the wake of the tsunami.

Built in 1876 by the Dutch, the 600-kilometre, single-gauge railway in the north of Sumatra, linking the provincial capital Banda Aceh to the city of Medan, sank into oblivion a century later amid unrest.

The railway reached its zenith just before World War II, when up to 9,000 people used it daily, transporting around 500 tons of goods to and from the staunchly Muslim area.

Steam trains plying the unique and narrow track along the scenic northeast coast of Aceh remained in use until the mid-1970s, when a bloody separatist conflict began that lasted until last year, leaving Aceh in isolation.

Meter by meter, the unused rails were overgrown by expanding paddy fields or subsumed by towns, while stations were gradually converted or neglected. Some sections of the track were smothered with asphalt and used as narrow roads.

In 2004, Indonesia asked the French railway operator SNCF to conduct a feasibility study on restoring the line. The company agreed on December 20 – six days before the tsunami.

Shocked by the scale of the catastrophe, SNCF’s then-chief executive Louis Gallois offered to undertake the study free of charge and experts were appointed to get to work in May 2005.

They traveled to a devastated Aceh and worked in damaged cities such as Banda Aceh, Sigli, Bireuen and Lhokseumawe.

“We were still able to find technicians and engineers who were involved with the train,” Michel Antraigue, an advisor to SNCF International in Indonesia, told AFP.

The French workers traced the tracks, which sometimes disappeared under houses or thick vegetation, and checked the state of the slowly corroding metal bridges constructed for the railway.

Numerous local officials told them of their desire to see the return of the train.


Cartoon Contest Lampoons Danish Royalty

JAKARTA ~ A Indonesian radio station has held a cartoon-drawing competition to lampoon Danish royalty to get even for cartoons published in Denmark that insulted the Prophet Mohammed, a report said.

A total of 73 children took part in the The Legend of the King of Denmark and the Pig drawing competition at a mosque in the East Java town of Kediri, organized by Radio Famili Education (Radikal) FM, the Antara news agency said.

Station executive Agus Sunyoto said the competition was a good way to get at Denmark for having allowed the publication of the insulting cartoons.

“Actually, this is a very effective way, compared to protests that often can lead to anarchism” Sunyoto said.

The agency said that many of the participants were non-Muslims.

One of the cartoons, by Halim Wiranata, 13, was titled King of Circus of Copenhagen, showing a mustachioed and crowned pig sitting on a throne in a circus with the Danish flag in the background.

His 10-year-old sister Tifania drew a pig dressed as a queen.

Denmark is one of the leading exporters of pork, which is considered unclean by Muslims.

The competition carries a total prize money of Rp5 million (US$550).

The Danish mission embassy in Jakarta had to close down for weeks in February following angry protests over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in the European nation and reprinted elsewhere.

Muslims, who account for around 90 percent of Indonesia’s some 220 million people, consider all images of the Prophet Mohammed to be blasphemous.

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