Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Villagers survived tsunami disaster, but strunggle to farm devastated land

Leony Aurora, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe

The situation just outside Lhokseumawe in the northern part of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam is not as gloomy as you might imagine.

Students ride their bicycles home through green paddy fields. The landscape bears no scars, it is picture-perfect as though the tsunami had passed it by.

But 15 kilometers east, green pastures give way to dry, cracked land. Coconut trees are scattered here and there, stranded without other vegetation. The dank smell of the sea hangs in the air.

Muslim, a local farmer, has one hectare of land near Pi village in Samudera district, North Aceh. But the 29-year-old man cannot grow anything on the plot, as it is caked with 15 centimeters of dried mud from last December's tsunami.

"I go to sea, sometimes, to earn a living," he said on Wednesday as he sat on a bench, staring out at his land. "The people from the agriculture agency came and said that we won't be able to plant for a year."

At first glance, the village looks as though it is in better shape than other areas. According to village chief M. Yasin, only one out of the village's 600 residents died in the disaster. That person was visiting Banda Aceh at the time of the catastrophe.

Unlike in the rest of Aceh, there was no power blackout in Pi village and most houses escaped damage.

However, some 37 hectares of paddy fields in the village are now barren and ghostly white from salt. There has been no rain for the last few days.

Most women in the village previously worked in the rice fields while the men went fishing out at sea. The poor state of the land now means that some 145 families living in the village have lost half of their income.

Muliana, 42, used to earn between Rp 7,000 (about 75 U.S. cents) for half a day's work or Rp 14,000 for a full day working in other people's paddy fields, which was enough to cover her children's school needs and put food on the table.

She used to give Rp 1,000 in pocket money to each of her two children who went to a nearby elementary school and Rp 3,000 to her eldest son who studied at a junior high school located about 15 kilometers from their house.

"Now there is no pocket money any longer," said Muliana amid her sobs. "Worse, my eldest son cannot go to school today, as I cannot afford to pay his bus fare."

Muliana's husband is a fisherman. He has patched up his damaged boat, enabling him to fish.

"But now it's difficult to catch fish due to the high waves," she said.

An edible riverine plant, locally known as genjer has become a dietary staple. The family has eaten it every day since the disaster struck.

Muliana said she had to borrow money from her neighbors to buy rice.

"We have never received aid from anyone," she said, when asked whether her family had received government assistance. "Sure, we still have our house and clothes, but we have lost our income."

The villagers are onlookers when aid pours into neighboring villages.

"Sometimes I want to stop the passing trucks that transport humanitarian aid, but I lack the courage," said Muliana.

When the village's people went to the district head to ask for assistance, his response was: "Did you lose your father or children?"

Another villager, Fauzaniah, said the district head had not even signed a letter of request for aid, which the people had forwarded to several organizations.

"What we need is rice. We are not asking for milk or instant noodles or anything else," she said.

People in the village have cleared the debris from the paddy fields, but they do not know how to remove the thick crust of salty earth. Neither do they know what to do to enable them to start planting their land.

They only know that they have to survive at all costs.