Tsunami Villagers Turning Their Lives Around

How does someone who loses everything and everyone they have loved — in a few minutes — continue with their life? The most remarkable aspect of my work as a feature writer for the AusAID reconstruction programme in Aceh was meeting people who were emerging as leaders, managing to think about the future, having ideas. In one village, one of those leaders was a 19 year old girl (see my feature:  Women of Aceh Find their Voices).

And in the run-up to the first elections for governor and deputy governor in Aceh, tiny tsunami-hit communities organised their own local elections to international standards.

“Our election has been conducted to the same rigorous standards as the Indonesian presidential election. The count was no different to the counting for the House of Representatives”

says Khusnun, the election chairman for the village of Kareung in the sub-district of Lhoong, a former conflict area 55 kilometers from Banda Aceh.

Pak Khusnun, Election Organiser

Pak (Mr) Khusnun: organised the election for village chief along presidential lines

Kareung is now a tiny community of 140 – a third of its original size. Most of the residents are men who were away when the tsunami struck. The mosque was the only building to survive and became a potent image.  Khusnun, 45, is a man of extraordinary resilience. He had been away with his wife, returning to discover his entire extended family had perished. As a school principal, he also lost more than half of his pupils.

First, he turned his attention to rehousing those villagers who remained. He raised funds from an NGO to enable the villagers – mostly farmers and fishermen – to buy a disused clove plantation in the mountain foothills. As you approach their temporary settlement, it looks colourful and bright, a contrast to the still devasted landscape surrounding the mosque a kilometer away. There are gardens stocked with flowers, fruit and vegetables all surrounded by fences to protect them from the goats. Further up the mountain they are planting chilli and peanuts to compensate for the lost rice paddies.

The site of the original Kereung village

It’s now a mainly village of men – those who survived were away for the day.

Khusnun’s temporary home is comfortable. A photograph of his two daughters, now dead, is on the wall. There’s a large radio in the corner.  A neighbour nurses her new baby in an adjoining room as he sits with his colleagues from the election committee on the floor.

Khusnun is a veteran of three elections for village chief, or geuchik.

“The difference this time was in our planning and the look of our ballot paper. These were ideas we got from our election workshop,” Khusnun says.

He came up with the idea of a workshop when he discussed plans for the election with Kareung’s “community facilitator”, Badlisyah.

Badlisyah, 22, had been living and working in the village for about six months, as part of a program called LOGICA – the Local Government and Infrastructure for Communities in Aceh project. His role has been to help traumatized people to identify and decide what they will need when their villages are rebuilt. He then works with them to lobby aid donors and the government so they have well-planned homes and utilities.

LOGICA is sponsored by the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development (AIPRD) and is staffed almost entirely by Acehnese.  Australia is providing AUD 40 million (about US$32 million) to assist the Acehnese in building strong governance and re-establishing village communities. Two hundred community facilitators like Badlisyah have received training in leadership, problem solving and negotiation. Hundreds more villagers have trained as their cadres, or assistants.    There have been grants to fund smaller projects which nevertheless help a community get back to normality, such as building fences, bridges, roads and village halls.

LOGICA has two other major programmes in addition to its communities project:  it is re-establishing land ownership through land mapping (carried out by Acehnese engineering and architecture graduates) and spatial planning; and it is strengthening sub district governments by building completely new offices or providing equipment and training.

The community yearned to move forward but for a while they couldn’t see how.

Badlisyah was a chemistry student at IAIN – Institut Agama Islam Negeri Ar-Raniry, or the State Institute of Islamic Studies, before the tsunami. He too was a survivor, sheltering in a mosque while his family was saved by hanging onto trees.

“Afterwards I thought: there must be something I can do to help people, by sharing my experience and skills.”

In his discussions with Khusnun about an election, he drew on his own experience of student democracy.

“I suggested that the village might like a more modern election by getting the candidates to take part in a debate and present their manifestos. This was how we did it at the university.”

The two men approached LOGICA for information. The upshot was a seminar organized by LOGICA’s local governance adviser, Mohammad Najib, with the sub-district head. Representatives of four other villages who were planning elections also attended.   They saw examples of polls in India and Pakistan, and went into detail about the Indonesian electoral process. They looked at different types of ballot papers and counting methods.

Leaders of the workshop raised difficult questions, such as: “What happens if a candidate is related to a member of the election committee?”

During detailed discussions villagers decided which methods would work best for their particular circumstances.

“For the count, the sub-district suggested having a box for each candidate. People would put their ballot papers into the box of their choice,” says Khusnun.

“But we decided instead to have one ballot paper with photographs of all the candidates. We followed the example of the presidential election.  From a practical point of view it helped our elderly voters who have difficulty seeing to read.”

The Kareung election committee went away and nominated three candidates who had to prepare manifestos and take part in a debate. The eventual winner, Salahuddin, a 28 year old construction worker, admits to having been apprehensive and surprised.

“They turned up at my house one evening and asked me to stand. They said they wanted me to prepare a speech and take part in a debate with two other candidates.

“I was nervous on the day but I’d reached the point of no return so I just did it.

In my presentation I said I would work honestly and strive to make the village prosperous. I promised I’d only take decisions based on discussions in community meetings, I wouldn’t act alone.”

Villagers posed questions, asking, for example, what would happen if an NGO came to the geuchik and offered money. Would he involve them in the decision as to how to spend it?”

Salahuddin promised them: “I will never hide anything. If I can’t keep my word I will step down.”

The community say they chose Salahuddin because he has been active in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of their village. The son of a religious leader, they see him as honest and dedicated to their welfare.

L to R: Badlisyah, Salahudin, Khusnun : “it’s enabled them to move on.”

Before election day, all voters received an invitation letter which they took along to the polling station. When they collected their ballot paper they inspected it with a member of the election committee to ensure it was clean and unused.  On the back of every ballot paper were official logos and stamps to allay any fears of fraud.

Separate polling booths were protected by curtains for privacy. Voters punched the photograph of their favoured candidate with a nail, folded it and put the paper in a box.

The head of security for the election, Mukhtar, only just had time to vote before he was called away – his wife had gone into labour in Banda Aceh! But the procedures he’d put in place prevailed on the day.

“The counting was no different from the House of Representatives,” says Khusnun. “Before we opened the box we asked the candidates and people present if we needed more time, as some students who were away in Banda Aceh hadn’t been able to get here.  Once the majority decided we should proceed, we unlocked the box.

“We asked LOGICA representatives to be witnesses. They were shown every paper before it was counted.”

Of the 87 registered voters, 69 took part in the ballot. Salahuddin was the clear winner, with 40 votes He formed a community forum to choose the village secretary and other leaders. The secretary’s post was filled by one of the other candidates, Abdulrahman.

“Both Abdulrahman and my other opponent, Muhibuddin , are strong characters with leadership qualities. They could fill several different posts,” says the new geuchik.

The committee will shortly receive training from LOGICA in all aspects of village administration, from letter writing to filing.

Salahuddin, who lost 36 members of his family in the tsunami, is looking ahead.

“In five years time, when my tenure is up, I want to see roads restored and in good condition.

“By then our temporary houses will have outlived their life and I would hope we will all be resettled on our old land in permanent brick homes. We’ve already started to build them. That is what I shall be working for.”

Khusnun will be concentrating on his school.

“I lost six of my teachers. Two others who live in Kareung have joined me and I have recruited young graduates.

“My school had won awards in the past. It was the best in the area. My ambition is to bring it back to its old standards but that will take around five years.”

The young community facilitator is full of admiration for these two men who have faced down catastrophic loss.

“I respect the way these two men take decisions. They always have meetings and forums. That’s why there is so little dispute.”

He praises Khusnun:

“He is the type of man every village needs. With his background as a school principal he has integrity and despises corruption and nepotism.  What makes him a truly great person is that he encourages the participation of people, he doesn’t push himself forward.”

The new village chief lost 36 members of his family that day.

Badlisyah also pays tribute to his new geuchik.  “He is so active in all community affairs. He’ll often stay up until three in the morning to finish reports on what he’s done. He is slow but sure. He speaks slowly and softly but he’s always focused. He knows what he is talking about.”

“The community yearned to move forward but for a while they couldn’t see how. The election gave them the opportunity. It has been a huge boost. Their achievement is something other villages can learn from.”

Indeed, already there have been 4 elections organised by communities who attended the same workshop.

Mohammad Najib, LOGICA’s local governance adviser who helped run the original workshop, also sees the election as a positive step: 

“Acehnese people look up to their leaders and the key to a village’s recovery is the quality of the leadership.”

He is passionate about what has been achieved.

“Even in the villages where people may not be highly educated they enjoy the electoral process, they take it seriously. The villages are setting the example.”

A  version of this story appeared in Tempo Magazine, Indonesian Time, on December 4, 2006.

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