What the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami swept in

Natasha Fatah on the political aftershocks of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

This Christmas week marks the fifth anniversary of the tsunami that devastated huge parts of coastal Asia and northeastern Africa.

Most of us, I'm sure, will glance at the news reports on television, give the tsunami a passing thought and go about our holiday business.

A combination photo shows (top) a view of the damage near Baiturrahman mosque December 27, 2004, the day after a tsunami hit the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, and (bottom) an Acehnese man collecting grass for his goat in the same area, December 4, 2009. (Reuters)

Maybe we are entitled to do that. Because millions of us lined up at the Red Cross and other aid agencies in December of 2004 to donate money for the reconstruction efforts.

And since then, we haven't given much thought to the tsunami or to Aceh, the region of Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra, that was devastated by the torrent in the ocean that Boxing Day.

Five years ago, we in the West gave money with the best of intentions, felt we had done our part, and left it to the well-known aid agencies and governments to take care of things.

But, the tsunami and the international aid relief that came after it set in motion a devastating political domino effect that few of us could have predicted.

Last year, I visited Banda Aceh, the capital of the region. As our small airplane flew over the towns, I noticed that rows of homes had red roofs. Then another area had only blue roofs and in yet another they were all white.

It was only later that I was told that each aid group puts its own colour on the roof of the house it rebuilds to show off the work that it had done.

As a result, neighbourhoods are divided along World Vision and UNICEF lines.

Walking around some of the areas, I noticed that every single new home had a large sticker on the front window with the logo of the non-governmental organization that rebuilt it.

Is this how we give people back their dignity? By plastering our labels on them? "This Acehnese survivor brought to you by the Red Cross."

But this was actually the least offensive of the problems in Aceh.

Here comes the West

Many countries donated money to the reconstruction efforts and that is why when you walk around Aceh you see The German Hotel, Turkey House and the Dutch café.

These are what they are: Western-style eateries and hotels with Western prices to keep the countless aid workers entertained and happy while they go about the long business of rebuilding Aceh.

Despite some early confusion and infighting, aid groups built more than 140,000 homes, 1,700 schools, 996 government buildings, 36 airports and seaports, 3,800 houses of worship, 363 bridges and 3,700 kilometres of road throughout Indonesia, the Reuters news agency reported in December 2009, citing the Indonesian reconstruction agency (BRR).

Few Acehnese can afford these places. They are simply a reminder of the gap between East and West.

Along with the aid, too, came corruption.

Aceh used to have an independence movement — a deadly one at times — led by a group known as GAM.

But the top tier of this rebel group quickly abandoned the fight once the international money starting rolling in.

They found themselves cushy appointments through the governor's office and effectively became part of the establishment.

In doing so, they left thousands of their child soldiers and families who had been loyal to their cause out in the woods — literally — to fend for themselves.

Nearly four years later, in 2008, a boat that was washed up on top of houses in Banda Aceh is still there as reconstruction goes on around it. (Natasha Fatah/CBC)

Those people, who needed the money the most to rebuild their lives, saw very little of it.

Sharia law

Also among the political consequences of rebuilding Aceh was the rise of fundamentalist Sharia law, a tradeoff, you might say, for the Western influence that was flooding in.

Indonesia boasts the world's largest Muslim population — about 200 million people. But it is a country that has always prided itself on religious tolerance.

Today in Aceh, however, Sharia police ride around on the motorbikes, making the lives of ordinary people miserable.

In a place that so desperately needed joy and escape, the movie theatres and public concerts were shut down.

Earlier report: Natasha Fatah on Aceh's Sharia sheriffs  

In Depth: CBCNews online's full coverage of the 2004 tsunami and its immediate aftermath.

Women are not permitted out after dark unless accompanied by a male family member. Women with their hair exposed are taken to the police offices.

When I was there I met a group of young women who run a not-for-profit radio station in Banda Aceh, where they push for a more progressive interpretation of Sharia law. They are routinely harassed by the Sharia police.

Another young Acehnese woman I met said that on her way to university, a Sharia police officer yelled at her for wearing pants and then proceeded to cut the sides of her trousers with a knife.

This is part of what our aid money has paid for.

Life goes on

The biggest loss in Aceh, of course, was human life.

Almost everyone lost someone in the tsunami. Husbands lost wives. Mothers lost children. Children became orphans.

An Acehnese girl in front of a mosque in 2008. (Natasha Fatah/CBC)

This was where the Indonesian government and our aid money could not offer any solution. But people themselves did.

In the days and weeks following the tsunami, there were hundreds of impromptu weddings and adoptions.

Widowers found women who had lost their husbands and married them. Children were taken in by mothers who lost their sons and daughters to the water.

In one of the colour-coded homes I visited, I met a woman sitting on the floor with her young son. Of course it wasn't her son, it was a boy she adopted days after the tsunami.

Her own son had died. And her husband had been married to someone else before the tsunami took her away. The two shared a common pain, so they came together to try to share a common healing.

Five years later, the signs of an opulent West and a sometimes oppressive local regime are everywhere apparent here.

But so, too, are the other, age-old signs that the people of Aceh are still fending for themselves, relying on the one thing they have always relied on — each other.