South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Indonesian Refugees Want Foreign Troops to Stay

14 January 2005

Jordanian military doctors treat patients at a clinic inside a refugee camp, while Australian and German troops swarm around the city’s main hospital making repairs. The buzz of US military helicopters has become so routine it’s now ignored.

Foreign troops have been a key lifeline in the tsunami relief effort and welcomed warmly in Aceh province despite its history of resistance to outside forces. With the government now saying it wants foreign soldiers to leave by March 26, refugees say they hope the troops will stay as long as needed—provided they stick to providing aid and don't establish permanent bases.

"If they leave, we will starve," said Syarwan, 27, a tailor who is now crowded with some 45 relatives under a tarp at a survivor camp in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

The government request came along with new announced restrictions on aid groups and journalists requiring them to register with authorities and travel with military escorts if they venture outside the two main cities in Aceh province.

The government has said the rules are for the safety of aid workers in the region, where rebels from the Free Aceh Movement have been fighting for independence since 1976.

The long military campaign has bred distrust of the Indonesian army among locals, who complain of the corruption that would result if the tons of aid flooding into the region aren't monitored closely to ensure fair distribution.

"We can’t expect any help from the Indonesian government," said Muhammad Yusuf, 35, another survivor camped out in a settlement that has grown to 4,000 people on the grounds of the local TV station. "We trust the foreign military."

The province was closed to foreigners before the government allowed them in to help with relief efforts after the December 26 tsunami that left more than 106,000 dead in Indonesia.

Along with aid workers, hundreds of foreign troops have poured into the area, providing key logistics support beyond the means of any relief organization.

Still, recognizing local sensitivities, none of the arriving soldiers is armed.

"If you carry weapons, you're asking to get shot," said Singapore army Capt Vincent Yeow, head of a surgical team at a clinic with about 35 troops. Still, the soldiers, located on an Indonesian army base that is also hosting a camp for tsunami survivors, take Indonesian military escorts along when they venture in large groups off the base.

No camouflage is visible anywhere near Lt-Col Mufadi Atawan, one of 24 Jordanian troops at a clinic inside another refugee camp. The doctors are wearing scrubs and other officers are clothed in normal civilian garb, another nod to Indonesian sensitivities.

Atawan estimated the region would likely need the boosted medical capability in the area for six months.

However, some of the troops here said their mission would likely be completed by the end of March when the government wants them to leave. The brutal force of the tsunami immediately killed those caught in its path, and hospitals have been able to cope so far with the critically injured.

"We’re in total agreement with the assessment of the government. There is no problem with it," said French Army Col Philip Puyo. "France is a long way from Indonesia. We made a long trip. We’re happy to do that. ... We hope the people are happy to be helped."

The largest foreign military contingent is the 13,000 Americans, but under the agreement for them to operate here, almost all head back to their ships anchored offshore every evening.

The US presence has raised concerns that they are here to stay, given the vast network of permanent American military outposts around the globe.

"If they really want to help without anything political behind it, why should they leave?" said one 25-year-old woman camped out next to the Singapore clinic, who refused to give her name because she said she didn't want to upset the United States.

She said people worried that Americans "come to help but behind it they want something" such as building a base.

More foreign troops keep arriving. Next to the Singapore clinic, advance troops from a Russian medical unit that arrived Tuesday were setting up tents for a mobile hospital staffed by a contingent that will swell to 200 soldiers.

The Australian contingent here is expected to increase to 900 by the weekend.

Lt-Col. Georgiana Whelan commands more than 160 Australian and New Zealand troops at Banda Aceh’s main Zainal Abidin Hospital, where wrecked infant incubators and hospital beds are stacked in the courtyard. She said their mission is open-ended for the moment, and that the soldiers have the ability to stay here for weeks or months, if required.

"We’ve come here with the mind-set that we’ll be here as long as they need us," she said.

Burt Herman

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa