South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Aftermath: Indonesia Government and Army Responded Slowly

3 January 2005

The Indonesian Army, which has ruled this restive province for 30 years, should have been easily able to mobilize a relief operation after the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster that swept half of this provincial capital away. But there was a problem: Nearly all the military drivers here fled their posts for safer ground, some even escaping hundreds of miles away.

The mass desertion of drivers meant that the military's trucks and other heavy equipment, needed to rescue survivors and remove dead bodies, had no operators.

It was one example of how Indonesia, which suffered the greatest loss of life of all nations affected by the tsunami, appeared the slowest to grapple with the magnitude of what happened - and the slowest to comprehend the world's sympathy.

Many ordinary Indonesians understood the need for help better than the government did. With the dead still lying in the streets here, the editor in chief of The Jakarta Post scolded the government for its refusal to capitalize on foreign good will. Endy M. Bayuni, the editor, headlined his article, "Don't Betray Aceh - Get Coordinated." He concluded by saying to the government: "Save our Aceh. Save our souls."

The suspicion on the part of the Indonesian military was on show this past weekend, when two American naval doctors arrived in Meulaboh to help but were confronted by skeptical local commanders.

"What are you doing here?" was the greeting they were given, an American official said. In the end, the hostility dropped, the American said, but the incident seemed to be an example of the failure of communications in the disaster's first days.

A major limitation was the fact that the calamity occurred in Aceh, Indonesia's most secretive province, where a civil war has been fought on and off for three decades.

Indonesia's military remains suspicious that Aceh separatists could exploit the chaos. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the government and a rebel movement seem to be observing a truce and relief efforts appear to be proceeding well.

Foreigners were virtually forbidden here before the disaster. Journalists needed permission to enter Aceh, and it was rarely granted. So when foreign governments and organizations asked to land relief aircraft in Banda Aceh, the government's first instinct was to insist that they land in the city of Medan, 250 miles and a grueling 12-hour drive away.

Some aircraft carrying emergency equipment, including a water purification system sent by the British organization Oxfam, were held up for days, lacking special permits.

By Saturday, when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited here, the policy had changed. International aircraft were landing at the military airport, including American helicopters from a battle fleet carrier.

The United States broke formal military relations with Indonesia early in the Clinton administration over what Washington regarded as the Indonesia military's poor human rights record. Efforts to resume those relations are still tangled up over the question of human rights.

"In normal times, Indonesia's worst nightmare was having American marines arrive on the Banda Aceh tarmac," said Daniel Ziv, an American aid worker with several years of recent experience in the province. "Yet here we are in the middle of this operation, and we have marines here. It's a sign of progress. Normally they wouldn't stand for it."

Now the American military is camped alongside Indonesian soldiers at the air base here, a situation unthinkable 10 days ago.

The bad road from Medan to Banda Aceh was not the only infrastructure problem. Aceh has a feeble electricity supply, and even in normal times this provincial capital does not have steady 24-hour electricity. The phone system, also creaky, was wiped out by the damage.

A senior aide to Mr. Yudhoyono, Dino Djalal, said that when he visited Banda Aceh with the president on the second day after the tsunami, Mr. Djalal asked a senior general for the general's cellphone number so they could keep in touch. "He replied, 'You must be joking,' " Mr. Djalal said. The general's cellphone started working only a few days later.

The president was at the farthest western extremity of Indonesia, in Papua, when the tsunami struck. The president flew directly from there to the disaster scene on the second day.

Much of the weakness of the government response reflected a lack of understanding by senior officials of the need of setting priorities and coordinating the branches of government to carry them out, said Emmy Hatfield, the national coordinator for the Civil Society Coalition for Tsunami Victims, a group of nongovernmental organizations in Indonesia. "We don't have a FEMA yet, yet this is a country sitting on earthquakes and volcanoes," she said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States.

In the first days of the crisis, she said, the government rejected many of the offers made by groups like hers. "They didn't trust us," she said.

After a lot of "screaming," she said, she was permitted to airlift from Banda Aceh to Jakarta 75 children suffering lung problems caused by dirty water they had swallowed as the waves washed over them.

The belated response from the government opened a window not only for civil activists like Ms. Hatfield, but also from political groups, particularly the well-organized Islamic party known as the Justice Party for Prosperity. Its cadres in their conspicuously marked T-shirts, are visible all over the hardest-hit areas of this city, helping to find bodies and distribute clothes.

On Sunday, the minister for social services, Alwi Shihab, who this weekend moved his operations from Jakarta to the disaster scene, said he was still not happy with the pace. Indonesian soldiers from other provinces were brought in to help operate equipment, and Mr. Shihab announced the appointment of Gen. Bambang Dharmono as the coordinator of the relief effort.

The general's first directive, Mr. Shihab said, was to remove "all visible bodies" that remained piled on a city bridge.

Jane Perlez

Correction: Wednesday, 5 January 2005

An article on Monday about the slowness of Indonesia's reaction to the tsunami disaster misspelled the surname of the coordinator of a group of Indonesian nongovernmental organizations who criticized Indonesian officials for initially rejecting its offer of help. She is Emmy Hafild, not Hatfield.

The article also misstated the location of Papua, where Indonesia's president was visiting when the tsunami struck. Papua is near Indonesia's farthest eastern extremity - far from the damage - not its western extremity, where some of the heaviest effects of the disaster were felt.

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