South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Aid Arrives, but Often Not in Equal Amounts

8 January 2005

When the first helicopter descended on this city 10 days ago, bringing food and water to people reeling from loss and hunger, children waved their arms skyward. Adults screamed in desperation and joy. Some shed tears of relief.

But Saturday, as helicopters traversed the sky, hardly anyone even raised their eyes from the ground. Most here had grown accustomed to the aid coming in steadily. Many had also grown used to not getting much of it.

"The distribution is no good," said Effida Roslia, a mother of two, whose house in the village of Ujung Baru is now an island of bricks stuck in the center of a marsh that has become a graveyard for many of her neighbors. "I've heard that everything has come here now, but I haven't gotten anything."

Two weeks after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, killing as many as 35,000 people in this city alone, the situation on the Indonesian island of Sumatra illustrates both the concrete achievements of the relief effort and the growing sense among survivors that food, water and medicine are not reaching everyone in equal quantities.

It is a dynamic that could ultimately determine the fate of tens of thousands of people. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, the center of the disaster, some 800,000 people are expected to depend on aid for the next three to 12 months, said the UN official overseeing the relief effort in Indonesia, Michael Elmquist.

On Saturday, helicopters flown by US, Singaporean and Indonesian military crews brought fresh loads of supplies to Meulaboh, where more than 30,000 people are believed to be homeless. They added to stockpiles now feeding people in 29 refugee camps throughout the city's environs, along with others in communities along Sumatra's west coast, the closest land to the epicenter of the quake.

Yet people relying upon that aid complained that the goods are scarce. Much of the relief is being brought to settlements controlled by the Indonesian military.

"The military has ordered that all the aid dropped by the helicopters be taken to their base," said Carifuddin, 46, a retired police officer whose house in Ujung Baru was destroyed by the tsunami. He accused the soldiers of keeping too much. "We have to stand in line for two hours to get two packs of instant noodles. There is some rice, but some get it and some don't," he said. A member of the Meulaboh city planning board, Tajudin Marlian, concurred that the army is depriving needy people of relief.

"It is a fact that all the aid is carried by TNI trucks that take the aid to their own base" he said, using the acronym for the Indonesian armed forces. "How could that be fair? They are taking a little bit for themselves." In an interview at an Indonesian army base here, Col. Geerhan Lantara, commander of the relief mission for western Aceh, denied such accusations. "There is no problem," he said.

The flow of relief and the passage of time have restored a semblance of normalcy to parts of this city, once home to about 100,000 people. Electricity has returned to much of the city, and with it the sound of the Muslim call to prayer over public address systems from mosques. A few restaurants and shops have reopened. On streets that only days ago were dominated by bodies wrapped in plastic, laundry lines are again strung across verandas, even from broken houses, as residents sift through wreckage for salvageable furniture.

But areas close to the water remain buried in debris and muck. Entire streets are choked with collapsed structures, corpses still held within.

Beyond the core of the city, questions remain about the conditions of those in isolated towns and villages. Once a hub of trade for much of the west coast, Meulaboh was cut off from the rest of the world by the disaster. What had been the road to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, now gives way to sand just before a ruined bridge, its span laying in three-foot-high surf. Sections of pavement lie scattered amid coconuts and shattered bathroom tiles.

In recent days, UN relief officials and aid groups have concentrated on examining conditions in settlements along the coast. Officials said they now believe very few survivors remain beyond the reach of the aid network.

"When you look at the landscape, it's like Hiroshima," said Patrick Hourtane, Meulaboh field coordinator for the French medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. "You see some walls, otherwise it's just a white square that was the place for a house. And it's like this for miles. . . . You get the feeling everybody died."

Col. Geerhan, the Indonesian army commander, said six Indonesian helicopters are now bringing food, water and medicine to places beyond the remaining road network. Two Indonesian navy ships based in the city of Calang ferry goods to smaller settlements nearby. On Saturday, Indonesian marines attempted to use catamarans to bring aid from Calang to Panga, where more than 2,000 people were homeless, Geerhan said.

Over the last two days, three bridges were repaired on the road linking Meulaboh to Medan, Sumatra's largest city, allowing aid to be trucked in that way, he said. Previously, the only overland route involved a two-day journey on a treacherously muddy road over the island's mountainous spine.

Geerhan said Indonesian crews on Friday established a new road linking Meulaboh to Arrongan Lambaleek, where more than 3,000 were left homeless. But he denied permission for journalists to travel that route, saying it was unsafe, then saying that it was not yet really functional.

Geerhan said relief in Teunom, where more than 6,000 were left homeless, was being disrupted by a long-running conflict between Indonesian troops and a separatist Acehnese rebel army. He accused the rebels of warning local residents not to accept drinking water supplied by the Indonesian army, lest public support shift to the government.

Meulaboh remains home to the largest concentration of refugees and the central focus of concern for relief groups in Indonesia. Accounts here suggested that aid flows are inconsistent.

For two weeks, Effida Roslia and her children have spent their nights in a camp of green canvas tents set up on the lawn in front of city hall. When the first helicopter came, three days after the disaster, it did not even land, simply dropping boxes of bottled water and dried noodles on the ground, she recalled.

"Everybody rushed toward it," she said. In the scramble, she managed to get only some noodles.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday she received more noodles in a more organized handout - two packs per family. "It's not enough, but we have to make it enough," she said.

When a man arrived with steamed rice and a scrawny piece of chicken wrapped in a banana leaf from a takeout stand, her 9-year-old son tore into it like a ravenous animal. Effida paid about $1 per portion for the rice - more than three times the price before the destruction. "We're hungry," she said.

Some refugees are now out looking for ways to provide for themselves. On Saturday morning, Muzaki, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, pushed a bicycle cart across the sand and debris that had once been a waterfront neighborhood, looking for aluminum scrap to sell.

Before the catastrophe, Muzaki, a father of three, sold fish in a market, earning between $5 and $8 per day, he recalled.

Now, he scours the wreckage for useful scraps, adding them to what he has already piled in his cart - a cooking pot lid, a stove top.

The day before, the work had earned him only about $2, he said. Still, it was enough to supplement the aid available at his camp. It was also far better work than the recovery of bodies that had filled his hours in the first days after the city was remade by the same sea that once was his livelihood.

Peter S Goodman

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa