Swapping places with wild boar

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Precisely 256 people were living in Gampong Baro on the day the tsunami hit. Just under half of them died.  Just 24 bodies were found, while 97 are registered forever “missing”. Their names and ages are all listed on a stone memorial in the heart of the village.

Surprisingly, such memorials are rare along the coastline devastated a decade ago. Most villages never found the heart to publicly list their lost loved ones in this way. But from the Gampong Baro plaque you learn that the oldest was Nek Neh, who died aged 93, and the youngest was a babe in arms called Mariana. No fewer than 28 of the dead were under 10 years old.

Gampong Baro means “new village”. It was established at Indonesian independence in 1945, on the north tip of Aceh, right opposite the island of Weh. The new villagers soon cleared the mangroves that lined the coast to create shrimp ponds, inadvertently clearing the way for the tsunami wave to rush inland.

Everything in Gampong Baro was obliterated on 26 December 2004. The “new village” died. No houses survived. Now there is a new “new village” four kilometres inland on higher ground.

After the tsunami, the villagers would have liked to reinstate mangroves in the area that the sea invaded, community leader Asuardi tells me. But the giant wave dumped sand in many places, covering the mud that mangroves need to grow. So in many places, the Green Coast project set up by the community under Asuardi’s leadership planted fast-growing native casuarina pine trees instead.

They planted 50,000 saplings over three years in a belt three kilometres long, fronting onto the ocean. They added mangroves in the muddier spots behind the sand.

The pines have grown spectacularly well.  Many are already more than 20 metres high. The group that planted them – in return for financial help setting up local enterprises – still keeps an eye on the trees, Asuardi tells me, as he poses for pictures beside the project sign. But, he adds, “actually I do it all now, because I have no children to look after. I have the time.”

He doesn’t mention why he has no children. Round here, he doesn’t need to.

It is dark inside the forest as we walk through it towards the sandy beach. The beach is where the village once was. The only building left is a cattle shed, part of one of the local enterprise projects established with credit from the Green Coast project. The 12 group members involved breed a handful of cattle each year for sale in local markets, mostly during Eid, the annual festival of animal sacrifice.

On the beach we see fishermen pulling in a huge net, more than 100 metres square, loaded with anchovies. Making fish nets is another activity sponsored by the project.

“Before we planted the trees, this was barren, but now it is green,” says Asuardi. The land where more than a hundred people died now “provides protection for us and for villages around.” Animals come here too, he says: many birds, but also wild boar. “Before the tsunami, the boar lived in the hills and we lived on the coast. Now we have moved our village into the hills, the boar have come down here. We changed places,” he says with a smile.

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