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Ethnic Chinese key to Aceh fix-up

Minority Chinese own an estimated 60 percent of Banda Aceh's shops, but many fled after the tsunami.

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In a crammed row of storefronts, only Joy Optikal, an eyeglasses shop, has reopened on a dusty street of the tsunami-battered city of Banda Aceh.

"Live or die, I will stay in Aceh," says a defiant Maria Herawati, who has run the store with her husband, Joannes Jony Pandy, for 16 years.

The two are part of Banda Aceh's small ethnic Chinese minority. Unlike an estimated 6,000 other Chinese who left, they decided to stay behind in the city after the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed some 240,000 people in Indonesia.

Ethnic Chinese are the heart of Aceh's trading community. How fast they return and set up shop will help determine the speed of recovery in the province hardest-hit by the tsunami.

Mrs. Herawati, whose family has survived wars, revolution, and persecution since migrating from China about a century ago, says she is determined to start business again, selling eyeglasses to the citizens of Banda Aceh.

In an interview last month, her husband recounts the story of standing guard on their shop's roof over five days and nights while looters pillaged their neighbor's deserted shops. "Either I was going to die, or they were going to die," says Mr. Pandy. "People thought I was crazy." The two are bitter that police and military officers stood by as looters swept through the city's trading district.

After braving the deadly flood waters, the two now face a much longer challenge: rebuilding a business in a city where up to 40 percent of the population perished in the tsunami.

Aceh's economy will benefit from an aid effort expected to cost $4.5 billion over the next five years, some of that distributed by Western nongovernmental organizations and companies. And the biggest industrial enterprise in Aceh, the PT Arun natural gas facility, is operated by a US company, ExxonMobil Corp., along with a Japanese partner and the Indonesian government.

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