U.S. takes on key project in Indonesian province

Concrete bridges weighing hundreds of tons were swept away like bathtub toys. The roadbed vanished or was chopped up into islands of asphalt to which homeless, hungry and injured survivors retreated, waiting for U.S. helicopters to spot them and deliver aid. This was the scene along a vital lifeline in the days after the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the western coast of Indonesia's Aceh province, killing more than 130,000 people.

Today, children are again being bused to school and vendors motor fish to markets via this coastal artery, which passes by tents, crude huts and makeshift houses for villagers still reeling from the Dec. 26 disaster. It skirts tsunami-spawned pools of fetid seawater and twists around spectacular headlands that plunge into the sea.

"We consider the road, as do all the Acehnese, the economic backbone of the province," says William M. Frej, director of USAID operations in Indonesia. "I cannot think of a more vital project that any government can undertake now in that province."

It was the U.S. government which latched onto the $245 million (euro208 million) road project as the centerpiece of a post-tsunami aid package which Frej says is benefiting nearly 600,000 victims. By mid-2009 a new 149-mile (240-kilometer) road will link the provincial capital of Banda Aceh to the key port town of Meulaboh. For now, a 50-mile (80-kilometer) stretch of the old road has been patched up or built anew, with 70 percent of the workers recruited from among the jobless roadside villagers.

Anti-American feelings can still run high in the world's largest Muslim nation, but B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.S. ambassador to Jakarta, says it's notable that he's not hearing any conspiracy theories about the aid. "I don't know the last time when we had someone say or write something like, 'the Americans are doing something devious with that road.' If they did, the Acehnese would laugh them out of the room," he says.

As three fishing boats in the village of Kuala unloaded their catch and vehicles prepared to drive it to market, Adami, a young sailor, said reopening the road has raised incomes and hopes in his village which lost 350 of its 800 people, including 13 members of his family. "We don't care about American policies or politics. We care that the Americans are helping us and that makes us very happy," said Adami, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

With two wicker baskets full of crabs slung across the back seat of his motorcycle, Rusdi Junus stopped to rest after plowing through pools of high-tide water on the old tsunami road. The 32-year-old merchant said he didn't know which country had restored the road, which now provides him access to markets but is still slow and difficult going, reports the AP. I.L.

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