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Sumatra Merchants Who Don't Look Back

Natives of Sigli, a town in Indonesia's hard-hit Aceh province, are great entrepreneurs. Even after the tsunami, their spirit hasn't waned.

January 21, 2005|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — After thanking Allah for sparing his four children, Abudakar Usman checked his four supermarkets in this shattered city. Only one was functional. He offered another prayer, and then went to work.

Usman called his suppliers in Medan, about a 12-hour drive away, persuading them to send truckloads of instant noodles, water, oil and sugar. Five of his 12 employees had been killed, so he rounded up survivors from other markets. Then Usman and his sons worked through the night to mop up the mud and repair store shelves. On the sixth day after the earthquake and tsunami, the stench of death still in the air, Usman revved up a generator and opened the doors of Pante Parak, or Silver Beach.

"It's a good opportunity for business," the 64-year-old said outside his market as customers jostled in and out. "A lot of visitors have come to town, and they need something." Since reopening, Usman has been raking in about $8,700 a day, five times the daily volume of the store before the disaster.

Such optimism may seem a bit misplaced in Banda Aceh, the capital of northern Sumatra's Aceh province, where tens of thousands of people were killed and countless homes and businesses destroyed. Yet it's a common trait among those from Sigli, a small town about 60 miles east of here known for its highly entrepreneurial culture.

Like the ethnic Chinese who own a disproportionate number of businesses in Indonesia, Sigli natives dominate the retail market in Banda Aceh. Part of Indonesia's majority ethnic Malay population, the merchants are called "black Chinese" by locals because of their darker skin.

As Banda Aceh begins to look toward rebuilding its economy, Sigli natives figure to play an important role. Their can-do spirit will be needed if Aceh is to get back on its feet. The World Bank and the Indonesian government this week estimated that it would cost up to $5 billion to replace what was damaged in Indonesia in the Dec. 26 disaster.

"We should not only focus on relief, but also help these kinds of survivors," said Azwar Hasan, a lecturer in public administration at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, the national capital, speaking of entrepreneurs from Sigli. "They have a great potential to awaken and rebuild soon and to influence others."

Hardly anyone here had insurance. Some didn't have a bank account, or even a credit card, because they dealt strictly in cash, now buried under rubble or lost to looters.

Most shops in Banda Aceh remain closed. But among the first to reopen were those of Sigli merchants. On Hasan Saleh Street, where Usman operates his market, Ismail Arsyad and his son are cutting hair again, Sadar Menanti is selling hardware goods, and Razali Yusuf is pouring rich Aceh coffee for a dime a cup.

Yusuf, 45, a soft-spoken man with an easygoing smile, said he would have reopened sooner had it not been for torrential rains and the difficulty of acquiring staples. Sugar especially has been in short supply, with prices doubling.

Coffee at Yusuf's shop used to sell for a nickel a cup. Prices of many other goods and services have gone up sharply, leading to complaints about gouging. Cigarettes, for example, have been selling for almost $1 for a pack of 12, about 50% higher than before the tsunami.

On a recent sunny afternoon, there were more cows on the street corner than customers inside Yusuf's shop. But he wasn't fazed by the slow business.

"Many people are afraid to come back because of the spread of disease," he said. "But I have a different perspective. If we feed people with enough food, I think we will not get diseases."

Yusuf came to the provincial capital in the mid-1980s. Like others, he left Sigli because there were few opportunities at home.

For three decades, Aceh's economy has been torn by fighting between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels seeking Acehnese independence. The province was barely growing when Southeast Asia's currency crisis in 1997 wreaked havoc on Indonesia's economy.

The country has recovered, but Aceh has trailed. And it wasn't until last summer, when parts of the province were reopened to outsiders, that its economy started to pick up.

Aceh and other areas in the northern part of the island of Sumatra are home to Indonesia's oil and natural gas production facilities, which were little affected by the calamity last month. The rest of the region's economy is based on farming, fishing and the trading of goods and services, all of which were devastated in Banda Aceh and its surroundings.

But if anyone can help revive the economy, it's the merchants of Sigli, said Rizani Yusuf, manager at Bank Syariah in Banda Aceh. "Sigli people are strugglers," he said, noting that many of them are his clients. "They will rebuild."

It won't be easy for Abdulah Teungku Yahya.

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