Many tsunami survivors still in tents, without jobs

Ever since the tsunami battered Aceh's coastlines, Zaini and his family have been living in a tiny tent that flaps in the wind in a rubble strewn lot.

Ever since the tsunami battered Aceh's coastlines, Zaini and his family have been living in a tiny tent that flaps in the wind in a rubble strewn lot. They've survived on handouts from international aid groups and, up until a week ago, the little they earned through a now defunct cash-for-work program. Life couldn't be much worse but Zaini - unlike many of those who escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and Rita in the United States - isn't angry. Rather, he exhibits a certain weary resilience that has come to symbolize so many Aceh survivors. "I don't know why I'm still here. I don't know who's to blame," said the 40-year-old, who lost his home and motorcycle repair shop in the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed a staggering 131,000 people in Aceh and left a half-million others homeless. "I don't want to stay any longer in this refugee camp. But I have no choice." Foreign governments responded quickly to the disaster, helping avoid a humanitarian crisis by pledging billions of dollars in aid and setting up dozens of crowded tent camps in the province. Thousands of international aid workers also flocked to the region to help. But nine months later, more than 150,000 survivors are still living beneath canvas tarps and in emergency shelters in conditions that Eric Morris, the newly installed UN Recovery Coordinator, last week called "unacceptable." Political squabbling and government indecision, he said, was partly to blame. Still, there's been none of the chaos or anger that reined over New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - where looters ransacked stores, evacuees pleaded for help and rescue workers came under fire. Survivors there blasted the federal and local government for responding inadequately to the devastation. Those that escaped Hurricane Rita have also complained about a haphazard evacuation that spurred massive traffic jams. Some Aceh activists say they are not surprised by the reticence of the tsunami survivors, given the history of the province on the northern tip of Sumatra, where separatist rebels signed an agreement with the Indonesian government last month to end a 29-year civil war. Nearly 15,000 people have been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians. "There's been conflict in Aceh for decades, be it man-made or God-made," said Ahmad Humam Hamid, the chair of the Aceh Recovery Forum. "People are used to experiencing loss - they've lost property, children, relatives - it's been happening for a long time." Many in the province of 4.1 million, he added, also believe that whatever happens is the will of God. "They are struggling to overcome their hardships - they are not going to blame anyone." So, people living in sprawling tent camps - many of whom lost husbands, wives or other relatives - have staged no protests over their conditions and have spent little time criticizing the government, or anyone else for that matter. Though some complain of occasional flooding and express fears of being unable to provide for their families, most exercise patience amid promises that they will either get homes or, at the very least, a spot in one of the military-style barracks. "I have no idea how to express how sad I am to stay here," said Rosmiati, 42-year-old mother of three who lost three sisters in the tsunami and been promised a house three months ago by aid groups. "All I want now is a house, not like this," she said, as she swept her small tent. "I want a house where I can feel safe and secure." The United Nations stepped up efforts to help, releasing a draft action plan last week that called for the construction of 15,000 prefabricated homes in Aceh over the next six months for families still living in tent camps. In the meantime, 27,000 new tents will be given out to survivors. The plan - which will be implemented by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other aid groups - also says government-built barracks need water and sanitation and that families who have taken in roughly 300,000 survivors should be given additional relief supplies.