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Students hear firsthand reports on tsunami’s aftermath

From left front, Indonesian dignitaries Nina Djajaprawira and Sanga Panggabean, with professor Dork Sahagian and his students, following class.

Nearly a year after a tsunami devastated parts of the Indonesian coastline, the country is still suffering the effects of the natural disaster that claimed the lives of more than 132,000 of its citizens and displaced an additional 572,000.

But, say the country’s U.N. representatives, a sense of solidarity and determination has firmly taken root in regions that have been torn by internal strife for decades.

The observations of Nina Djajaprawira and Sanga Panggabean, First Secretaries of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Indonesia to the U.N., were shared with students of Dork Sahagian’s earth and environmental sciences class “Tsunami!” in late November.

The visit of the two dignitaries to the Lehigh campus marks the first time a U.N. representative has visited the campus to speak to a class since the inception of the LU/UN Partnership, says Bill Hunter, director of Lehigh’s Office of International Students and Scholars and the university’s representative to the U.N.

The visit was arranged through Lehigh’s status as one of only six universities in the world to be fully recognized by the U.N. Department of Public Information as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).

Long-term rehabilitation needed

In her presentation, Djajaprawira detailed the extent of the damage to her country in terms of physical deterioration, loss of life, and destruction of infrastructure.

“Indonesia certainly suffered a serious blow,” said Djajaprawira, noting that the damage estimated in U.S. dollars approaches $4.5 billion. “There was also massive humanitarian loss, and great damage done to homes, hospitals, schools and roads. There remain many challenges to rebuilding as well.”

Chief among them is funding the reconstruction, which is expected to cost between $6 to $8 billion over a four-year period. A significant portion of that will go toward replacing the 120,000 homes, 2,135 schools and 690 hospitals destroyed after the tsunami was triggered following the occurrence of a massive earthquake off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra on December 26, 2004. The tsunami washed out or rendered unusable 2,260 bridges and hundreds of kilometers of roadways, most of them in the Aceh Province in the northwestern portion of Sumatra, she said.

Following a three-month emergency phase, Djajaprawira’s country has been and will continue to be immersed in the rehabilitation phase through December 2006. Continuing challenges include not only the extent and severity of the destruction, but the loss of land title and banking records, the ongoing humanitarian concerns, and the government’s limited ability to provide jobs so that tsunami victims can begin to rebuild their lives.

“We must also sustain the will of the international community to support long-term rehabilitation,” Djajaprawira said. “There was much generosity and concern, and this must continue in order for us to be successful.”

A sense of shared purpose

Panggabean noted that there have been positive political developments as the result of the tragedy. Eight months after the tsunami struck, a peace agreement was forged between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh movement after 30 years of conflict.

“There has been a sense of national solidarity,” he said. “It brought the nation much closer together, and that sense of national solidarity will also help with democratic reform in Indonesia.”

The sense of shared purpose is also driving rehabilitation efforts, they both said.

“There is a different atmosphere in Aceh,” Paggabean noted. “There is a sentiment that we want to move on together.”

Added Djajaprawira: “The people are participating every step of the way, through the planning and the building. That’s one of the reasons why it seems to take so long – all the consulting – but it also helps move the process. Once they learn of the importance of national ownership, people are eager to be involved.”

Following their presentations, Djajaprawira and Paggabean fielded questions from students, which ranged from a discussion of the country’s new early warning system, to lessons learned from the tragedy.

Sahagian, director of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative and professor of earth and environmental sciences, said he was pleased that the students had the opportunity to discuss the tsunami with the U.N. delegation.

“It made them realize that they can have meaningful interactions with high-level government officials,” he said. “This comes near the end of our course on tsunamis, so they had the background and context to appreciate the insights provided by the First Secretaries. After studying the human impacts of the disaster through reports and photographs, the discussion with the Indonesian delegation made the tsunami less of an academic issue, and a more of a real world event that affects people's lives.”

Sahagain said he hopes students continue to take advantage of future opportunities to engage in discussion with national and international government officials, and learn to play a role in governance throughout their lives.

Hunter added that this event represented the first of what he hoped would be regular opportunities for faculty and students to interact with U.N. officials in the classroom.

“The LU/UN Partnership is intended to serve as a co-curricular venture, supporting the efforts of our faculty. My door is wide open to faculty who want help to plan similar programs," Hunter said.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, December 01, 2005

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