First published in The Jakarta Post, January 29, 2005
EDUCATION AFTER CATASTROPHE
Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta
Contemplating the magnitude of the catastrophe, it is clear that education is a key factor in enabling the Acehnese to rebuild their lives. Rebuilding education in the devastated province is one of the most urgent tasks for the government.
Its positive long-lasting impacts cannot be guaranteed, but it is because of this long-term issue that people's and the government's commitment needs to be tested. Short-term goals may appear pertinent and seem to be more crucial, but long-term goals are equally as important.
It should be borne in mind that the disappearance of about 1,000 teachers, and the fact that 50 percent of school buildings were crushed by the earthquake-triggered tsunamis, was also a massive "mental quake" for the Acehnese students. Around 140,000 elementary school students and 20,000 junior high school students have been left stranded, with no school buildings in which to study. We should remember, however, that even before the natural disaster, education in Aceh had suffered much from the prolonged war between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
Many of the youths are still trying to cope with the bitter reality that their beloved classmates -- with whom they used to sit, play, "fight", study or share student jokes with -- are dead. It is, therefore, crucial that we help bring back the students' confidence.
It is encouraging that people have begun to switch from donating secondhand clothes and dry food to other things, such as books, pencils and pens. Therapy-like education has slowly been introduced, while volunteer teachers of many religious and social organizations are streaming into the province.
While mosques are widely used as emergency schools -- also offering religious guidance -- other emergency school buildings are being erected. Also, several school buildings that remained intact were cleared of refugees so that classes could be held there.
These efforts, however, are insufficient and more needs to be done accordingly.
First, it should be realized that the province was not only devastated by a colossal calamity, but has also been a war-zone for decades. The recent restriction imposed on foreign volunteers, while understandable as far as "sensitivity" and "security" issues are concerned, is still regrettable as it could hinder the reconstruction process.
In this case, priority should be given to volunteers who are willing to work in rebuilding the education system -- be they national or international volunteers.
Because of these restrictions, however, national teacher volunteers should be given wider access to more volatile areas that have been closed to international volunteers. Alternatively, international volunteers could be accompanied by officials or local non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives.
This requires not just good coordination, but awareness from all sides of the significance of providing decent education for Acehnese students.
Second, education under these circumstances will require more patience than in normal times. As many national volunteers are university students with more physical energy than most teachers, it is hoped that they can conduct their mission with vigor.
Likewise, counseling, for example, might be better conducted by university students, especially from the schools of education or psychology, who can act as "brothers and sisters" to the Acehnese students.
Third, volunteer teachers should also act as role models for the disturbed Acehnese students.
Fourth, the tragedy and education reconstruction efforts could be a moment of truth that becomes the foundation for the rebuilding of Acehnese society. At the same time, people in the troubled province could be more convinced that they are an integral part of Indonesia.
The fact is that many Indonesians, irrespective of their ethnicity and religion, volunteered or donated funds to the province in a national show of solidarity and compassion for the Acehnese.
Through education reconstruction efforts, the sincerity and warmth of their brothers and sisters across the archipelago, as well as the empathy shown by the international community, may become lasting memories for the younger generation of the Acehnese.