New buildings start to replace submerged villages of Nias Island

News Stories, 22 December 2005

© UNHCR/J.Perugia
An impromptu meeting between UNHCR and community leaders on the beach in Tagaule, one of the three submerged villages on Nias Island.

NIAS ISLAND, Indonesia, December 22 (UNHCR) While still reeling from last December's destructive Indian Ocean tsunami, Nias Island off Indonesia's Sumatran coast was struck again three months later by an 8.7 magnitude earthquake that killed almost a thousand people. Thousands more were left injured or homeless, and three remote villages were tilted into the sea.

On the night the earthquake struck, terrified islanders still traumatized by the December 26 tsunami grabbed their children and fled for their lives into the hills. But in the isolated fishing villages of Tagaule, Botohaenga, and Bozihona (some 40 km south of the capital Gunung Sitoli on the south-eastern side of the island), villagers had another horror to contend with.

"Water came up from the land like high tide coming in," said Yutimina, who along with her husband and five children was asleep in their home in Bozihona when the earthquake hit. "The water flowed out of cracks that appeared in the earth and flooded the village within an hour," she said.

With one of her children missing, and another one unconscious, Yutimina, her husband and their other children ran from the flooding village, dodging falling trees and thinking they were experiencing the end of the world.

In nearby Tagaule village, Immunuddin Aceh, 70, who was living with his daughter and her family, also suffered a dramatic experience immediately after the earthquake. The only lantern in the house had been broken during the tremor, and he stumbled around in the dark desperately searching for his granddaughter unaware the rest of the family had already fled to safety. Suddenly, the house started to fill up with water emerging from cracks in the ground. Then, he says the house was struck by a huge wave about eight metres high.

As he was swept away, Immunuddin managed to grab hold of a half-submerged coconut palm. Clinging on to the tree, he worried about the rest of his family and listened to the terrified cries of animals caught in the disaster. He says he cried when he realised a cat, which he had seen in another palm tree, had disappeared. Praying constantly, he clung to the tree for five hours before being rescued.

The powerful geological forces which created the earthquake had tilted the entire island the south-eastern side of Nias fell by two metres, while the south-western side rose higher above sea level. In some places, the shoreline moved 200 metres inland. As a result, the villages of Tagaule, Botohaenga and Bozihona on the south-eastern side of the island, were half-submerged.

Miraculously, only four lives were lost in the three villages, but hundreds were injured, or left homeless and destitute. Homes as well as health centres, schools, mosques, churches, community centres and fishing boats were lost in the disaster. With most of the villages only accessible on foot or by canoe, delivering humanitarian aid was not easy.

Just days before the earthquake struck Nias, the UN refugee agency had begun withdrawing from its emergency tsunami relief operation in Indonesia's Aceh province, on the island of Sumatra. But UNHCR's logistics office in Medan was still operational, and the agency was able to quickly send tents and relief supplies to Nias.

Nine months later, some residents of the three submerged villages are still living in tented camps. UNHCR recently distributed new tents to replace the older ones, battered and dilapidated by the tropical weather. Villagers in the camps, and others who are living with host families or in partially damaged homes, are restless to get back into proper houses and resume their normal lives. And they won't have to wait much longer.

UNHCR, its partners and the villagers themselves have joined forces in an operation to help the submerged communities rebuild some 300 homes. Work started in late November, after some of the villagers had received special training, and is expected to continue through 2006.

"The villages were chosen in part because of their isolation and marginalization," said Reko Hasegawa, who is in charge of UNHCR's operation in Nias. "There is no doubt that it's going to be a major challenge to see this project through to completion, but the unbelievable toughness and determination of the villagers to move forward with their lives regularly inspires us all, and reminds us that it's a job worth doing."

Getting timber and supplies to these villages is a major logistical exercise: Bozihona is the only one of the three villages that is accessible by road. In addition, there are some tricky land-ownership issues of submerged lands and homes which are in the process of being resolved.

UNHCR is working alongside the Japanese non-governmental organization, the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA), and the Indonesian government's co-coordinating body, Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi NAD Nias (BRR), in the rebuilding project.

In addition to the "submerged-village project," UNHCR plans to buy and import to Nias about 20,000 cubic metres of timber for free distribution to some 13 other agencies working on housing rehabilitation on the island. This will be enough timber to build 3,500-4,000 houses. This partnership of agencies, coordinated by BRR, will work together with the people of Nias, to help them rebuild their homes and their lives.

"Getting legally harvested timber was identified by all agencies involved in Nias as the number-one barrier to moving forward with full scale rehabilitation. So we agreed to take on the challenge," said UNHCR's top official in Medan, Gregory Garras.

"The timber we're buying will come from legitimate suppliers we've identified in Kalimantan. We're sending a five-person inspection team out to the remote sawmills to ensure that we get what we're paying for," Garras added.

The first boatloads of Kalimantan timber are expected to arrive in Nias in late December. The timber is expected to cost more than US$ 4 million which is around 10 percent of the funds donated to UNHCR for its tsunami relief and recovery work in Aceh province and on Nias. The agency has received a total of US$ 39 million for its tsunami relief operation in Indonesia.

For the submerged villagers living in tents, the signs that large-scale rebuilding is about to get under way are deeply welcome. Samsider Hulu, who was pregnant at the time of the earthquake and living close to the shore with her husband, grandfather and two children, is grateful.

"If UNHCR hadn't come along, it would take a long time for us to get a house thank you for coming to help us prepare," she said.

By Janine Ward
on Nias Island, Indonesia

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Shelter

One of the first things that people need after being forced to flee their homes, whether they be refugees or internally displaced, is some kind of a roof over their head.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

The port city of Aden in southern Yemen has long been a destination for refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants after making the dangerous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa. Since May 2011, Aden also has been providing shelter to tens of thousands of Yemenis fleeing fighting between government forces and armed groups in neighbouring Abyan governorate.

Most of the 157,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Abyan have found shelter with friends and relatives, but some 20,000 have been staying in dozens of public schools and eight vacant public buildings. Conditions are crowded with several families living together in a single classroom.

Many IDPs expected their displacement would not be for long. They wish to return home, but cannot do so due to the fighting. Moreover, some are fearful of reprisals if they return to areas where many homes were destroyed or severely damaged in bombings.

UNHCR has provided emergency assistance, including blankets, plastic sheeting and wood stoves, to almost 70,000 IDPs from Abyan. Earlier this year, UNHCR rehabilitated two buildings, providing shelter for 2,000 people and allowing 3,000 children, IDPs and locals, to resume schooling in proper classrooms. UNHCR is advocating with the authorities for the conversion of additional public buildings into transitional shelters for the thousands of IDPs still living in schools.

Photographer Pepe Rubio Larrauri travelled to Aden in March 2012 to document the day-to-day lives of the displaced.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

One Year On: Rebuilding Aceh

In the aftermath of the devastating 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, UNHCR mounted a massive relief operation for some 100,000 survivors on the severely battered west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province.

After the initial three-month emergency relief phase was over, UNHCR withdrew from Aceh. However, in June 2005, after the Indonesian government had assessed the needs for the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase, UNHCR returned to assist in rebuilding the west coast communities. All the survivors' main infrastructural needs – such as schools, community centres, places of worship and family homes – have been included in the holistic reconstruction effort, and efforts have been made to ensure they are all designed to suit the Acehnese way of life. Rebuilding is already underway in the villages of Kreung Sabee and in Calang.

UNHCR has also been helping the recovery effort on Nias Island, off the coast of Sumatra, which was struck by an 8.7 magnitude earthquake on 28 March.

One Year On: Rebuilding Aceh

Running for shelter in Côte d'Ivoire

UNHCR has expressed its mounting concern about civilians trapped in the Abobo district of Cote d'Ivoire's commercial centre, Abidjan, following days of fierce fighting between forces loyal to rival presidential candidates. The situation there remains grim. Many of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Abobo have fled, but armed groups are reportedly preventing others from leaving. UNHCR is particularly concerned about vulnerable people, such as the sick and the elderly, who may not be able to leave.

Running for shelter in Côte d'Ivoire

Lebanon: Fadia's StoryPlay video

Lebanon: Fadia's Story

A former nurse, Fadia found life as a refugee in Lebanon to be especially difficult without employment. She counts herself lucky to be living in a shelter paid for by aid agencies, but food and other necessities are harder to come by. Fadia's is one of 145,000 Syrian families in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq headed by women. Poverty, isolation and fear of exploitation are just some of the hardships they face.
Iraq: Mosul ExodusPlay video

Iraq: Mosul Exodus

A shortage of shelter is emerging as a key challenge as UNHCR and others race to help people fleeing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and heading to checkpoints between Ninewa province and Iraq's Kurdistan region. Many are arriving with little more than the clothes on their back.
Ethiopia: South Sudanese Refugee InfluxPlay video

Ethiopia: South Sudanese Refugee Influx

Despite a ceasefire agreement signed in early May, fighting continues between government and opposition forces in South Sudan. The renewed conflict has forced thousands of refugees to seek shelter in Ethiopia.