February 15, 2005

Mass Relocation of Tsunami Survivors Begins

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP) -- Indonesia has started the massive task of rehousing thousands of people who have been living in tent camps and public buildings since December's devastating tsunami.

The project aims at putting up to 150,000 tsunami survivors in buildings with better sanitation and improved living conditions while their homes are rebuilt by the government, officials in the worst-hit province of Aceh have said.

Hundreds of people were on the move under military escort, clutching their belongings and using trucks, buses and motorcycle taxis to move out of the emergency shelters.

"It went well and according to our plan and target," Budi Atmadi, the head of operations of the National Relief Coordination Agency for Aceh, told AFP.

"As of today, we are relocating the refugees to the barracks and this will go on every day until March 15," he said, adding that about 850 families were relocated in one facility alone.

A statement from the taskforce charged with the relocation said that a total of 4,916 people in Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar district were due to be moved on Tuesday to 10 relocation centers in the two areas.

There was no official word on how many people had been moved in total by late Tuesday.

One of the displaced, Cut Meutia, a 40-year-old mother of four said after moving into her new home that it was much better than her previous refugee camp but she and her neighbours would have preferred to return to her village.

"These barracks will improve the dignity of you all," Aceh Besar district chief Rusli Muhammad said, unveiling a new block.

"By living in these barracks, your conditions will improve compared to living in refugee camps," he said.

Aceh deputy governor Azwar Abubakar, in a speech welcoming the refugees to a centre in Lambaro, just east of the provincial capital, said they could expect to be in the temporary buildings for up to one year.

In total, the project is to involve more than 800 semi-permanent blocks to accommodate people for up to two years. The relocation is expected to be completed by mid-March.

The specially-built blocks house each family in one 20-square-metre (215-square-foot) room with 12 families sharing a communal sanitary block.

The relocation plan has faced criticism by both international rights groups and the displaced, who have voiced concerns over the military's role.

In a joint statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First said last week that fears were grounded over the Indonesian government's poor human rights record in Aceh.

There were concerns the new camps could be misused "as a way of controlling the population for military purposes unless human rights safeguards are put in place".

The military's prominent role in transporting the Acehnese to the new sites, in camp management and in aid distribution would invariably create fears among the displaced population, they said.

But the mayor of Banda Aceh, Nurdin, pledged that those living in temporary accommodation would not be forcibly relocated.

"Moving to the barracks is only an option... we will not force them," he said on Monday.

The government has insisted that people would not be allowed to rebuild their homes where they once stood, close to the shoreline, to prevent further carnage in the event of a repeat disaster.

But many survivors were anxious to return to rebuild their homes.

"Do not move us too far from the city," said Abubakar, who was living with relatives in a tent pitched outside Aceh's provincial council building.

"If we are close to the city, we can easily return to our village to clean and rebuild it," he said.