|Texans help revive an Aceh tradition
3 men get Indonesian fishermen back into waters after tsunami
10:01 PM CDT on Sunday, August 21, 2005
By LENNOX SAMUELS / The Dallas Morning News
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- In January, three Texans from Austin came to this crippled city determined to make a
difference in the lives of area residents, who suffered the worst damage in last year's tsunami that had
devastated chunks of Asia the day after Christmas.
From left: Eddie Bloom, Aaron Lyman and Eric Lyman founded Austin International Rescue Operations in
Indonesia's Aceh province shortly after arriving in January. The nonprofit agency acts as a broker to build boats,
helping local fishermen return to work.
When Eddie Bloom and brothers Aaron and Eric Lyman arrived, human bodies and submerged fishing boats still
clogged Aceh River, the city's key artery.
Thousands of people were living on the foundations of their former homes, and mountains of debris inundated
streets, properties and the riverbank.
The tsunami ended up killing about 235,000 people, demolished some 800,000 homes and erased 600,000
But now people all over Aceh province are clambering back onto their feet, despite bureaucratic inertia in the
capital, Jakarta, and the departure of many Western relief agencies. Aceh residents are ready to get back to
They just need some help.
"We had a lot of organizations rushing in here," said Andrew Sobey, operations officer with the United Nations'
Food and Agriculture Organization. "Many NGO's brought in a lot of money but did not have the expertise, didn't
know how to spend it."
Mr. Bloom and his colleagues are practical, hands-on relief workers who know how to spend money. Their
organization, Austin International Rescue Operations, or AIRO, has staked out a position as a leading broker in
boat-building, a critical enterprise for Acehnese, most of whom are fishermen.
The tsunami destroyed hundreds of fishing vessels, leaving many workers unemployed and dependent on
Six months ago, AIRO did not even exist. Mr. Bloom and the Lymans were just three Austinites who showed up
with no plan other than to help.
They were an unlikely trio. Aaron Lyman, 46, AIRO's president, has held several high-tech management jobs,
most recently vice president for worldwide sales with SigmaTel, a leading Austin-based computer chip supplier.
He was involved in charity work in Indonesia from 1978 to 1980. His brother, Eric, 45, is a world-record bungee
jumper and "extreme adventurer" who has traveled extensively in South America and has 20 years of experience
in the construction industry. Mr. Bloom, 50, is a former deputy commissioner with the Texas Rehabilitation
Commission who served with the Peace Corps in Afghanistan.
"Our message, since Day One of this great adventure, has been consistent: We simply hope people will help
each other in whatever way they can, and have fun doing it," Aaron Lyman said from Austin. "Within families,
across the street or across the world, we can all make a difference to help ease suffering and sadness."
The men could have donated money but instead decided to fly to Indonesia for direct involvement.
"We didn't know what we were going to do when we came here, whether we'd be pulling out dead bodies from
rubble," Mr. Bloom said. "I started doing research and found this area was the center of fishing, that many
people had lost their livelihoods."
So that was the direction in which the men went. Shortly after arriving, they incorporated as AIRO, a nonprofit
agency, because, "We needed to be somebody," Mr. Bloom said. "We were not going to get anywhere telling
people we are three guys from Austin."
The lean operation soon began to be noticed because, in a gargantuan relief process tangled up in red tape
and politics, it was getting things done fast.
"Because of our efficiency, our use of local craftsmen and materials and sensitivity to local cultures, we are
getting outside funding for almost 200 boats in-process now, with hundreds more still in need," Aaron Lyman
Now, from a rented, three-story building, AIRO is helping whole villages and towns get back to the business of
making a living.
AIRO already has placed 10 boats in the water, is under contract to build 56 more and has submitted to
prospective funding agencies one proposal for a 100-boat project and another for 11 boats, including a
23-meter (about 76 feet) behemoth.
While the three men paid for their first 10 boats mostly out of pocket, they have since settled into the role of
broker. Needy fishermen's co-ops seek them out for help, and the men convert those requests into professional
proposals, with relevant specs and budgets, that they then submit to funding agencies, including the U.N. and
the Mormon Church.
"They're looking for clean, pre- and post-tsunami data, commitment from surviving boat craftsmen and a team of
workers we've assembled, approval from local authorities including landlords, mayors and sea commanders,
reliable suppliers and, of course, quality work," Mr. Bloom said.
AIRO's headquarters, which the men are renovating, is a hive of activity because of workmen hammering and
caulking the space into livability and due to the parade of village elders arriving with proposals for funding.
AIRO will not deal with individuals or families. Any request must arrive vetted and approved by the yayasan, or
community organization, and signed off on by village elders, including the geuchik, or mayor, and the panglima
laot, or top fisheries official.
"That way we know that we are helping the people most in need and as many people as we can and with the
blessing of all the local authorities," Mr. Bloom said.
To a back office, with rubble and sunken boats still visible through the window, supplicants come with stamped
paperwork and eager faces.
"The economy is destroyed. We don't have money or boats," explained Abdulhadi, 48, the ketua, or chief, of one
yayasan. He had driven six hours from Lhokseumawe to make the case for 100 boats to be shared by two towns,
six villages and four co-ops.
"Ninety percent of our 140 boats were destroyed. If we get this project, we can help people who don't have work
now return to the sea," said Abdulhadi, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.
Minutes later, Mr. Bloom heard a proposal from 32-year-old Ayi Yusrizal from Lampulo and two other men from
Mulia, two villages that had united to appeal for help. They were seeking 10 11-meter boats and a 23-meter
vessel. The latter boat would have a 1,200-meter fish-netting system that alone would cost as much as the craft.
Mr. Yusrizal owned two boats before Dec. 26, when the tsunami upended his life. Seventy percent of the people
in his village toiled in fishing-related work, he said. The population, once 9,800, is now 2,500.
The fleet of 97 boats that fishermen in Lampulo operated pre-tsunami has been reduced to 29 -- so many
businesses ruined, the father of two lamented in an interview.
Nevertheless, he declared: "I will never stop my job as a fisherman. My experience is in this, fishing the sea and
working the boat -- going back to my father and grandfather."
The Indian Ocean is tranquil now, lapping quietly at the coastline. But evidence of the destruction abounds.
Acres of land are utterly devoid of vegetation -- almost bizarre in a tropical country.
Life goes on
But normality prevails, too. Children laugh merrily as they study math and the Bahasa Indonesia language,
dressed in their white tops and ruby pants or skirts. They gather enthusiastically around chalkboards, sitting on
blue tarpaulins in schoolyards as workmen rebuild classrooms behind them.
Nearby, young men hammer, saw and nail in AIRO's rented yard, cajoling the brown wood into what soon will be
26 5-meter boats.
Overseeing all is Marzuki, the lone surviving master boat craftsman in the village. A stern-looking, hard-bodied
man of 62 dressed in a traditional sarong, Marzuki regards the AIRO project as a way to bring continuity to a
venerable way of life.
"From this work going on here, everyone benefits a little bit in the village," he said.
Mr. Bloom endorsed that continuity, pointing to the traditional Acehnese design of the new boats.
"We don't want to make anything more Western," he said. "Not only is it the right thing to do, it is more long-term.
It's the way they've been doing it for a very long time."