Simeulue and Nias may be the postcard ideal of paradise on earth with their white-sand beaches and coconut palms, but locals have found life on these Indonesian islands hellish lately. Since an earthquake measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale hit the area in late March, thousands continue to flee aftershocks and endure days increasingly marked by dangerous instability.
Geological fits make reconstruction tough in a region already battered by December's tsunami. Civil engineer Charlie Hickey landed on Simeulue in mid-February thinking his only task would be to help rebuild the island. Instead the Irishman soon found himself in emergency mode.
The earthquake late the night of March 28 sent him bolting out of bed and staggering down the corridor of his house as the walls and floors wobbled. He emerged with only a few scrapes but found basic necessities like food and water swiftly became more crucial than his original mission of reconstructing bridges and livelihoods. "The earthquake upset a lot of things," said Mr. Hickey, a relief worker with the aid group Concern Worldwide. "Not just physically, but in terms of morale."
Simeulue sits off the western coast of Sumatra, the second-largest island in the Indonesian archipelago. Compared to the Dec. 26 tsunami, casualties from the March earthquake were mild: 17 dead and a few dozen injured. But neighboring Nias, a majority-Christian oasis in the Muslim nation, saw at least 650 killed and 80 percent of the island's infrastructure destroyed. With the quake and rumbling aftershocks, the only constant now for locals and aid workers is bracing for the next temblor.
Nias is 90 percent Christian, its landscape like a quaint American town with churches-mostly Lutheran-on nearly every block. Islanders largely escaped the tsunami. They sent aid and helping hands to the devastated areas of Muslim Aceh in the wave's wake. In Nias, "the common thread was, this is God's punishment because very few Christians were hit," according to Jim Jacobson, a veteran of Southeast Asian aid work and president of Christian Freedom International. He toured Indonesia in March assessing the tsunami's damage. "That was what was being talked about. Fast forward and you've got the earthquake, and that hit Christians. It just shows God rains on the just and unjust alike."
More than two weeks later, Nias islanders were sleeping outside their homes in tents and under terrace roofs or stretched-out sarongs, not wanting to be trapped in another earthquake. Such a risk lurks continually. Indonesian aid worker Lana Paschetta Angelita told WORLD she felt tremors every three or four hours as she guided foreign journalists for three days around Nias. "Every day there are excavations by heavy machines . . . most of the dead people are still under the ruins," said Ms. Angelita, who is a public relations officer for local relief group YTB Indonesia.
That kind of instability means frightened islanders on Nias and Simeulue continue to flee from their homes by the thousands, while many are trying to escape the islands altogether. Ms. Angelita saw locals in Nias lining up in the harbor of Gunung Sitoli, the capital of Nias and the hardest-hit by the earthquake. She said many are headed for mainland Sumatra in the hopes of greater stability and jobs, putting pressure on local authorities trying to stem an exodus.
Nias is "such a beautiful island," Ms. Angelita said. "Beautiful beaches, coasts, and friendly people. It has such a high potential for tourists. It's such a (pity) right now that even the local people are trying to get out."
One of the biggest challenges in Nias remains reaching remote areas, with some accessible only by helicopter. Even before the earthquake, traveling by road was an adventure: Mr. Jacobson said one 20-mile trip he took spanned almost 6 hours on the island's poor, potholed system. Now new damage has added cracks and breaches. Food is also at a premium, with marketplace prices jumping between three and 10 times the original, Ms. Angelita said.
In the midst of crisis, however, Nias also has stores of goodwill. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and other parts where Christians and Muslims live cheek-by-jowl have suffered from Islamic militancy and religious violence. One example is the eastern Maluku islands, where thousands were killed starting in 1999 as a Muslim terrorist group infiltrated and helped fight local Christians. But on Nias, the two groups have always enjoyed good relations, largely because Christians vastly outnumber Muslims, Mr. Jacobson said. The earthquake only heightened the camaraderie as families helped each other find lost loved ones and simply cope.
Deaths from the tsunami were comparatively low on Nias and Simeulue because of folk memories from 1907, when a killer wave swept the islands. Advice passed down through generations told islanders to head for the hills if the sea suddenly disappeared from the beach. But they could do little against a massive earthquake.
Aid workers have had to rough it, too. Since the earthquake, Mr. Hickey has not moved back to Concern Worldwide's Simeulue house, which is cracked and unstable, and keeps contact only through his satellite phone. The group expects to grow its island team and help locals build more traditional housing from coconut trees, which bend more easily with the earth's shifts than concrete.
"There's no internet, no TV, no other forms of communication. . . . It's kind of nice in a way," Mr. Hickey said. But islanders have an obstacle-ridden road back to normal life. "They're real survivors," Mr. Jacobson said, "but they need all the help they can get.
No aid under the influence
For extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka, some unwelcome guests rode in with the tsunami: Western aid workers. They fear these foreigners rendering aid will also render religion to disaster victims, fueling Christianity's spread throughout the South Asian island.
Christians are a small fraction of the majority Buddhist nation and have endured over 150 attacks in the last two years. Gangs of Buddhists have set fire to church buildings and beaten pastors. Now the Sri Lankan government plans to introduce a bill in parliament that would outlaw "unethical" or coerced conversions. In practice it would make life hard for faith-based aid groups: Even giving food or a blanket to someone of another faith could earn fines and imprisonment of up to seven years.
Grumbling over Christian influences has already surfaced after the tsunami. In January organizers of an international fundraising cricket match for the wave's victims planned to funnel funds through World Vision. The prospect produced an unusual alliance: Marxists and extremist Buddhists in parliament demanded the government seize the money and distribute aid itself. In late 2003 militant Buddhists labeled the aid group part of an "NGO mafia." One of its offices was firebombed that November.
This is not the first time anti-conversion legislation has cropped up in Sri Lanka. Last July the hardline Buddhist party in parliament, the JHU, introduced a similar bill that the Supreme Court struck down. The latest version will likely be stronger, however. The government has said the bill will go to conscience vote, meaning lawmakers will not have to vote along party lines as is usual in a parliamentary system.
"It will turn it into a Buddhist versus anti-Buddhist vote," said Roger Severino, legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It will put pressure on Buddhist MPs to vote for it." The Fund, a law firm that advocates freedom of religion, is working to defeat the bill ahead of its introduction this month.
Despite the radical rhetoric, aid workers say tsunami victims are overwhelmingly grateful for the help they are receiving. "The people who are opposing us are people who are far away from the tsunami areas coming by jeep, coming by car and beating up on Christian workers," explained KP Yohannan, president of Gospel for Asia. Still, he stresses that persecution against Christians is not new in Sri Lanka. While the anti-conversion bill could make ministry harder, he said his workers plan to keep sharing the gospel no matter what happens.