Getting around

August 2006

Indonesia’s Independence Day – August 17th.
All banners and bunting, school children practicing marching drill on every road for weeks, and police stopping vehicles to demand they fly an Indonesian flag. Another celebration and Gunungsitoli spruces up a little more, more gutters re-built, more roads repaved, less litter in the streets (thanks to the garbage collection system set in place by a joint project of some international Red Cross agencies).

But the real difference is in how the pace of rebuilding has picked up. Across the island the NGO and Government housing projects are kicking in and new villages springing up for the displaced. After limping along for nearly eighteen months Nias is assuming an insouciant air again. Completed houses and shops painted with a wild array of butterfly colours (paint suppliers have had a run on pink, orange, sea-green and turquoise) or tiled. All over. Tiled floors, walls and ceilings, even under the eaves; usually in similar slightly muted shades, and often with a large Jesus tile mural beside the front door.

More and more sand and gravel is being hand-dredged from the rivers, carried to the nearest roadside in tins and baskets and sieved into piles of different gauges to be sold for road, house or infrastructure construction. Stones are also collected one by one from rivers, or slowly dug from the sides of mountains. They, too, are patiently sorted and neatly stacked on roadsides in different grades; peanut gravel, mango gravel, coconut gravel and rocks. River stones especially are in demand for road gravel. They are smashed to smaller gauges with lump hammers. Men, women, sometimes young children laboriously hammering, stone by stone, for a meager income; 2,000 rupiah (around 25 cents) per 5 kilos of riverstone gravel.

River stones are also sorted into coconut and rock size to fill the wire mesh Gabion baskets which are now being used to stabilize the river banks. This had lead to some interesting value adding; on a recent trip down south we saw a woman collecting rocks from Gabion baskets stabilizing a beachside road. She will re-sell them - recycling in its most pragmatic form. With all the rocks being taken, riverbanks are washing away and their beds are reduced to bald mud.

This sixty first Independence Day for Indonesia combined with a national Muslim holiday to give us a Thursday and a Monday libur. Rick and I celebrated with a dawn-break 15 km return walk out to a small traditional village in the hills of Gunungsitoli and later an over night sea cruise on the beautiful Labitra Hanny.

The Hanny is an LCT (landing craft) is Australian owned and subcontracted at the moment to World Food Program (WFP). Rick first met up with the Hanny and Rudi, her First Mate, when they were working in East Timor in ’98. At that time shipping was the easiest way to get materials around the island. For parts of Nias, and especially the UNHCR reconstruction projects, LCT delivery is the only way.

Rudi, from Banda Aceh, is now the Hanny’s captain, and he and Rick are good mates. When the tsunami hit he was working off Simuelue island, north of Nias. He managed to get back to his coastal village but there was nothing left.  250 people gone and never  found. Generations. The only survivor of his extended family, Rudi re-married within three months. He told us it is important when you are completely alone to find someone quickly.

This trip for the Hanny was to our Drowned Villages project, taking  timber, cement, roofing sheets and vehicle beach mats, plus two Manitou forklifts for unloading and three small trucks for transporting the materials. The project, rebuilding 252 houses, is ninety minutes south by road, but only one villages has a road. The other four are accessed by water, 30-60 minutes by fishing boat.

We watched the night loading until around 2am, then rolled into a double hammock that had been vacated for us on the back deck. At dawn we approached Bozihona 3, a fishing village with around 90 families, a Christian church and an elementary school. When the earthquake hit Bozi 3, 25 metres of beach sank into the sea and 43 houses were washed away. Inland two more houses collapsed while many others were damaged.

The Hanny had to wait three hours for the tide. LCTs are designed for shallow water offloading, but this access was too shallow and the fall of the ramp too steep. One Manitou managed to get off so Rick and I unloaded ourselves with it on the forklift prongs. I’d only been to this village once before and needed to check out the watsan (water/sanitation) project. Oxfam agreed to provide materials for ten wells and twenty latrines. The villagers transport the materials themselves, an hour’s walk along the beach, (a couple of planks or a bag of cement on the head each time) or about 25 minutes by canoe.

Bozihona 3 is the last location in the Drowned Villages project to receive materials, and despite the longest wait these villagers have also been the most patient and friendly. We spent an hour walking around with an interpreter, taking photos and patting puppies.

Waiting in the shade on the beach for unloading, one of the villagers climbed a coconut tree with his giri (a machete, beaten from flat steel by village blacksmiths) and cut down a bunch for us. He climbed down and neatly slashed off a hemisphere of husk and opened the top. When we’d drained the juice he halved the nut and sliced off a spoon-sized piece of green husk so we could eat the flesh. In such young coconuts this is a slippery jelly, delicious!

In my last post I mentioned that a large shipment of timber had finally arrived, and the long wait was over, the pressure off. But there are different forms of pressure.

The importing of 95,000 steel roofing sheets for the shelter programs was unproblematic.  Timber has been another story.  Rick and the UNHCR team have so far landed five shipments, totalling 7,350 cubic metres. The original target of 20,000 cubic has been halved due to difficulties in procurement and revised to what the agencies can realistically accomplish before the end of the year. Building has been slow for many reasons, not the least of which is the hold-up of timber supplies. (Do you get a sense of circularity here?)

The government push to ensure all the timbers supplied from Indonesia are legally cut has meant the accreditation of millers, an admirable but torturous process. Undermining that process is endemic corruption. And corruption is what seized our last shipment by the throat.

 Every shipment has had problems and delays. But the last, half a timberyard full, was loaded and ready for departure on the dock at Sampit in Kalimantan, Indonesia’s largest timber port, when a top level Forestry official claimed a document wasn’t signed and demanded US$20,000 to ‘fix it’. Everything stalled for 68 days except frantic meetings and negotiations. By the time the timber was eventually, legitimately, released it had sat uncovered on a rainy season dock for weeks and the waiting ship had accrued $200,000 in demurrage fees.

An expensive use of donor funds. One adopts a sort of tempered resignation edged with bitterness about the way corruption at high levels denies the poor and the displaced, their own people.

 Government recruitment takes a different slant in Indonesia. I’ll paraphrase explanations provided by national staff. To become a police officer the applicant hands over IDR25 million (over $3,500AUD, or IDR80 million if you’d like to be a judge.) He or she is trained for a year before donning a police uniform and the next few years are spend fining motorists (mainly motorbike riders) for a litany of minor offences, to retrieve the investment with straight-to-the-pocket fines. A similar amount secures a government position, whether it be a university trained teaching position or an untrained postal worker. For this investment (on top of university fees) a teacher earns a paltry 1,200,000 rupiahs a month, or $216 AUD.

 In early July we returned to Australia for a brief, cold and rushed fortnight home, during which I was interviewed by RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) and accepted onto their register. Our return to Nias warmth meant the third extension of Rick’s contract, and a new contract (also a posting with UNHCR) for me. I do the reporting and community liaison, assist with timber allocation and oversee the acquittal of all the timbers taken by partner agencies. This means 3-4 field trips a week; regular visits to the drowned villages as well as forays to construction sites all over the island to monitor progress, standards and storage. It is a brilliant job.

One monitoring trip was to Lahewa in the north of the island, parts where the landform tilted upwards. On a long section of coast the seafloor lifted, leaving vast beds of coral dying in the sun. Mounds of coral up to two metres high, as brittle and grey as old

The island is beautiful, I have the perfect way to explore it, working with great national staff and meeting Nias people all over. I can’t believe my luck.

We are, I think, into the rainy season (seasons are not a big agenda item here) – and the days are generally milder. We still feel regular tremors but nothing serious. With only six weeks left of the mission the pace is starting to crank up. Two more timber shipments are due, there are reports to write, functions to hand-over, assets to dispose of and we need to find ongoing employment for our 30+ exceptional national staff.

It should keep us reasonably busy, and I know the last of our time here will pass far too quickly.