Rebuilding after tsunami horror

Aside from a mosque by the beach, virtually every building for up to three kilometres in Banda Aceh was destroyed.

Ground Zero was the spot above which an atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945, reducing the Japanese city to rubble and precipitating the Second World War's end. When the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 220,000 people on Boxing Day in 2004, the term was quickly applied to the bridge at Ulee Lheue, a seafront neighbourhood in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, the closest major city to the epicentre and where the giant wave barrelled ashore.

Aside from a mosque by the beach, virtually every building for up to three kilometres was destroyed. Once the routes to it were cleared, the view from the bridge resembled nothing more than the post-nuclear pictures of Hiroshima, the straight lines of the roads cutting between great blocks of utter devastation. In Ulee Lheue itself silence reigned, broken only by the eerie creaking of twisted sheets of corrugated metal roofing shifting in the breeze. Even weeks later, the stench of rotting corpses hung in the air. It was months before all the bodies were recovered.

The Apung I, a giant electricity-generating barge, stood several kilometres from shore, testament to the staggering power of the quake that unleashed the tsunami - around 100 times stronger than the Haiti tremor. The destruction zone in Aceh extended for hundreds of kilometres along the coast. More than 160,000 people were killed in the province and many more left homeless. With communications barely functioning, it took days for the scale of the carnage to become clear. When it did the global response was unprecedented. People around the world donated hundreds of millions of dollars - within weeks Médecins Sans Frontières stopped accepting contributions, saying it had as much as it could spend. Governments provided billions in reconstruction aid. An army of relief workers descended on the province, supplemented by waves of Indonesian volunteers and a number of militaries whose helicopters proved indispensable in the first weeks of the humanitarian effort to distribute supplies.

Vitally, the disaster helped bring to an end the vicious 30-year struggle for Acehnese independence by Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, an armed group, and a formal peace deal was signed within months. In the circumstances, the initial humanitarian effort worked well. Fears of epidemics in the camps never materialised but rebuilding efforts were more troubled. Lost land-title documents delayed the building of permanent housing. After nine months, 140,000 people were still living in tents.

When devastation strikes on such a scale, recovery takes time. Two years after the disaster, more than 50,000 houses had been built, although in some cases the water and electricity infrastructure had yet to catch up. But five years on, while challenges remain - hundreds of families are believed to still be in temporary accommodation - the city and province are unrecognisable. Speaking, in Jakarta last month, Joachim von Amsberg, the World Bank country director, said: "If you look at the numbers, how many roads and schools have been rebuilt and even rebuilt better than before, it's a big success."

At least 141,000 houses have been built, and Banda Aceh's market, just inland from Ulee Lheue, is a thriving centre of activity. The coastal neighbourhood itself is inhabited again, and the Apung I has become something of a tourist attraction, with tsunami survivors making a living by giving visitors guided tours of the vessel. * The National