ULEE LHEU, Indonesia (AP) – Gathering in the shadow of a tsunami-battered mosque, local leaders and international donors took stock Saturday of a disaster that wiped out vast stretches of Indonesia’s Aceh province, saying rebuilding efforts were picking up after months of delays.

The ceremony marking six months since the Dec. 26 disaster was also a time to remember the dead, with prayers from the Quran and recollections of a young tsunami survivor, Nada Lutfiah, who lost her parents in the calamity.

The fourth-grader had received a letter from a third-grader in Michigan expressing hope that her family had survived. But she had to write back with the awful truth.

“Unfortunately, my family – father, mother, brother and sister – are gone,” Lutfiah said, reading from her letter. “Now, I’m alone.”

Amid the grief, efforts to physically rebuild Aceh have been plagued by political squabbling, donors’ concerns about corruption, challenges in implementing a new finance law and government delays in releasing guidelines for rebuilding.

But officials said Saturday the situation was improving.

“Now, it’s time to look forward,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, director of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias. “Finally, things are happening on the ground.”

He said $2.8 billion has been disbursed by foreign donors and $1.9 billion in projects approved by his agency.

Officials from the World Bank, the United States, Australia and Japan, among others, noted the scattered signs of progress in Aceh: dozens of new homes going up in destroyed villages and a pier being rebuilt in one town.

“We’re at a stage now (that) within the next month or so we’ll really begin to see recovery and reconstruction changes physically in Aceh,” said Bo Asplund, the top U.N. official in Indonesia.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which pulled out of the province in March in a dispute with the government, used the occasion to say it was returning.

However, the rosy picture painted by officials has been lost on the few residents who have returned to the coastal area called Ulee Lheu. Once it was home to several thriving middle-class neighborhoods. Six months after the disaster, it’s still little more than piles of dirt, bricks and trash.

Ulee Lheu’s Baiturrahim mosque, where the officials gathered Saturday, is almost the only standing structure along this coast on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Nothing has been rebuilt for miles except a prayer hall. There is a smattering of tents.

The mammoth quake and tsunami killed more than 178,000 people in 11 countries, and about 50,000 more remain missing. The focus has shifted from emergency relief to longer-term recovery. Donors and aid agencies are seeking to rebuild basic infrastructure and renew broken lives.

Indonesia was the hardest hit of all the countries, with more than 131,000 dead and half a million left homeless. About 250,000 Acehnese survivors remain in tents awaiting promised housing and other services.

“While the relief operation ensured that urgent needs in the emergency phase were met, reconstruction has got off to a slow start,” the World Bank said in a report on Aceh released Saturday.

“In part, this simply reflects the huge logistical complexity of the challenge, but (also) reveals bottlenecks in the machinery of government and deficiencies within local authorities. It also reflects the fact that many donors are only now getting authority … to spend money they committed in January.”

The World Bank said a myriad of challenges lie ahead, including sorting out land ownership, reviving the economy and ensuring a coordinated approach to rebuilding.

“Coordination is of the essence,” it said. “Without more attention, problems of gaps, duplication and widely varying program standards will emerge and could contribute to deep inequalities in the recovery, hence possibly increasing conflict.”


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