Peace Dividend

By Jeffrey, Paul | The Christian Century, September 4, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Peace Dividend


Jeffrey, Paul, The Christian Century


AS THE SUN rises over Kuala Bubon, Wadi begins mending his fishing nets. Soon he is accompanied by the sound of hammering that echoes across the lagoon where dozens of brightly painted new boats are moored. Two and a half years after the tsunami ravaged this village on the southwest coast of Indonesia's remote Aceh province, life has begun again and peace has flourished. "It has taken a while, but after so many long years of war and suffering, the wait was worth it," says Wadi, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "We have peace, and that means we can rebuild our village and be around afterward to enjoy it."

Perched on the northern tip of Sumatra, Aceh was once the poster child for intractable conflict, and at first the 2004 tsunami piled calamity upon misery. Yet today a successful partnership between international relief organizations and grassroots democratic initiatives has lifted Aceh from tragedy and set it on a promising course, turning the tsunami into a unique opportunity to end the war and rebuild at the same time.

For three decades, the separatist movement spearheaded by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was locked in a military struggle with the central government in Jakarta, which, after East Timor's independence in 2002, was determined not to lose any more of its far-flung string of islands--especially not the resource-rich Aceh region. Fifteen thousand people died in the fighting. And then the tsunami hit the day after Christmas in 2004, leaving 167,000 dead or missing and huge swaths of the province in rubble.

But the waves also smashed down the walls of a prison in Banda Aceh where separatist leader Irwandi Yusuf was incarcerated. Irwandi and a handful of other prisoners waded free from the wreckage and began a political transformation that led to an internationally brokered peace agreement in 2005. The rebels acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty in exchange for political participation and some measure of autonomy. Elections, finally held in December, were the first major test of the tentative peace process. The surprise victor in the governor's race was Irwandi, who has a master's degree in veterinary medicine from Oregon State University.

Besides Irwandi, former GAM fighters won several local positions as well. But new elections for parliamentary positions have been put off until 2009--meaning that the purse strings on government projects will continue to be held tightly by politicians in Jakarta, a factor which may frustrate Irwandi and his comrades. Yet after all the political and geological trauma of recent decades, no one seems interested in rushing again into war.

The massive international response to the tsunami, and all the money that flowed into Aceh, which was ground zero of the disaster, have clearly encouraged the peace process. And vice versa.

"The only way Aceh is going to advance is if it's reconstructed, but that can happen only if there's peace. If peace unravels, then there goes reconstruction, there goes the future of Aceh," said Scott Campbell, the Aceh director for Catholic Belief Services, the international development and relief agency of the U.S. Catholic community.

Responding to the emergency in Aceh has not been easy for relief agencies. The need was massive, and so was the amount of money made available by donors. Despite the conditions on much of the government-provided emergency aid--that it be spent within two to three years--the scope of the disaster made it difficult to respond quickly. It took months to begin serious reconstruction of the region's housing.

"It's difficult to understand the sheer size of the tasks we faced. And to have hundreds of agencies simultaneously trying to build on a little piece of land automatically generated resource issues. You simply couldn't get enough wood and cement and labor to accommodate all of this at once. In other emergencies, it usually takes from five to 10 years or more to really talk about rebuilding.

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