Letter from Banda Aceh

Down to Earth No 64  March 2005

A personal view from Aceh, by a member of DTE staff, written late January

No-one had warned me that it might be much more difficult to get to Aceh from Medan than from Jakarta. So many people are trying to leave Aceh to stay with relatives elsewhere and so many Acehnese from Medan and Jakarta want to look for missing relatives, or to help surviving members of their families, that it is hard to get any kind of ticket. Enterprising ticket touts have bought up all available tickets and are selling them at increased cost. I wanted one, but they are all in Indonesian names, and I could not pass as Ibu Suryawati or suchlike. Fortunately, all the night buses were fully booked for the next 3 days too. Not my favourite option. Travelling by road at night in Aceh is not something to be undertaken lightly at the best of times as there are frequent landslips in the wet season and also many, many army road blocks where identity cards are checked and money demanded.

So I went by Hercules. In theory, to go on the military flights from Polonia airport, you need 2 photos, a completed application form and a letter vouching for your status. In practice you need a good deal of patience and politeness. A small army of military and civilian bureaucrats sit at a number of desks under a large tent, next to a now empty hanger where all the aid was stored a couple of weeks ago. You are questioned and your documents inspected, stamped, photocopied at successive desks, before moving to another section where the whole process starts again. Two hours later, they announced that all the flights were full for today: I should come back tomorrow.

I joined a group of returning refugees and military personnel at dawn on the tarmac and all fifty of us were eventually loaded into the hold with sacks of flour, rice, sugar and clothing. In-flight entertainment consisted of a 20cm centipede running over a woman's leg! Next to me, a man returning to Banda Aceh shouted questions over the engine noise to an army administrator also based there. Their matter-of-fact conversation was incredibly grim but, I later realised, normal for post-disaster Aceh. "I'm worried about what I might find in my house." "I found five bodies in my garden when I first went back. The important thing is to check if the doors and windows are still intact. If they are not, call in the Evacuation Team and they'll deal with any corpses. You'll know by the smell too."

As we came in to land, everyone stood on the canvas seats, clutching onto the webbing to look through portholes. My first view of Aceh - and how beautiful it is! Spectacular mountain ranges with forested slopes above the bright green paddy fields spreading down to the palm fringed coast. Then the plane turns and there is the devastated coast and at least a third of the city flattened. It looks like pictures of Dresden and Nagasaki. Even after weeks of TV coverage, it comes as a shock. No-one was talking any more.

The tiny airport in Banda Aceh has become the centre of relief operations. It is like a film set for M.A.S.H. Various nationalities of foreigner striding around in army fatigues or flight jump suits. A big UN emblazoned cargo plane landed just after us. The air is filled with aircraft fuel, dust, testosterone and the noise of helicopter rotors. Around 350 helicopter flights per day are being made out to Meulaboh and the small islands. I talked with one of the crew who was at the same dinner table at the hotel where OXFAM's operations are based. They've been everywhere - Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia, but Aceh is bad even by their standards.

Many NGOs, aid agencies and volunteer teams are now based in kampongs about 8km from the sea. Away from the coast, it is almost possible to forget this is officially a disaster area. True, the main road from the airport does not have much traffic apart from military jeeps, trucks, motorbikes and motorised rickshaws, and everywhere there are large banners with company logos proclaiming their support for the relief efforts. But the market on the outskirts of town is bustling and shops and banks are open again there. It was several days before I went to what was the city centre.

We are living in a large two storey house in the leafy suburbs. The usual mixture of activities goes on for nearly 24 hours a day: people typing at computers, talking, eating, praying, watching TV or just sleeping in a corner - all at the same time. The garden has a few fruit trees, a concrete well and a few sagging armchairs. Skinny cats prowl around scavenging. Meals are cooked for us. Rice and veg in chilli sauce three times a day, if you have the time and energy to eat. And lots of thick sweet coffee, of course.

But the normality is only superficial. This house is accommodating at least ten times more people than usual. A team of twenty or so medical workers arrives from Yogya at around the same time as the truckload of student volunteers from Palembang return from visiting an IDP camp. The people who've volunteered to recover bodies now live in another house/office down town. The garage is used for dispensing medicines.

Several volunteers who have been here for two or three weeks still sleep in tents in the garden for fear of more quake damage. The aftershocks are still strong - apparently another 5.5 or 6 last night. I slept through it - a luxury afforded only to those who did not suffer the trauma of the initial quake. Several local people rushed outside and didn't sleep again that night. It's not surprising that when a 6.5 quake struck Palu in Central Sulawesi the other day, there were scenes of mass panic as people fled for fear of a tsunami. Before, that would just have been another quake.

The abnormal quickly becomes normal. The motorbike rickshaw driver makes polite conversation as we drove along the river yesterday, just as if commenting on the weather: "Looks nice& clean today. No corpses. Not like last week." Three of the eight pages of the main part of the daily newspaper in Banda Aceh are taken up with photos of missing people - happy, smiling faces in wedding photos, baby photos, graduation photos, school photos. All with date of birth, distinguishing features and often a contact mobile phone number. The worst of this tragedy is that it comes on top of so much suffering from the conflict. But most of those 'missing' pictures were of young men who had been disappeared by the military and militias; these are mainly women and small children.

A standard protocol seems to exist for people from Aceh meeting for the first time. The usual opening gambit in a conversation has a special significance. "Where do you come from?" now means "How badly has your family been affected by the disaster?". Everyone has been hit in some way. The stories are tragic. One of the lovely women who does the cooking sits in the kitchen telling a nurse from Yogya how a stranger helped to carry her six-year old daughter to safety when the tsunami hit. She lost her older child and her husband in the confusion and has not seen them since. When the other woman names her home area, no-one has the heart to ask further questions: the whole area is now underwater. A local man described how he and some friends were trying to help someone trapped in under a building after the quake, when the tsunami hit. The crushed car outside belongs to a young activist who lost his wife and both daughters: one was saved from the wreckage to die in hospital with mud-filled lungs.

Along the road, small hand-written boards point down dirt tracks, saying "Members of X village here". In other words, this is where refugees from a particular area are staying with relatives of family friends and they want to let any other survivors know they are there. It is wonderful how people are looking after each other. When you see the news on TV, it looks as if it is all international agencies and foreign military teams that are doing the work, but ordinary folk here are doing extraordinary things.

The American volunteer who turned up a couple of days ago speaks no Indonesian. She's on her own; her sending organisation cancelled the rest of the team. She went off today with the office driver to the city to see the damage. They happened to pass an area where bulldozers were clearing the remains of housing. The body recovery team cheerfully called her over to see the remains of 3 people after 4 weeks in tropical temperatures. I am not ready for that yet.

The Australian woman took me to the body recovery team's mess this evening. I have huge admiration for these people. We talked with a new team of volunteers from Singapore who'd had their first day in the field. Meanwhile, health workers checked over Indonesian volunteers who'd been there for a couple of weeks. They'd had some basic training, but nothing can really prepare anyone for devastation on this scale and the awful things that have happened. That unit had taken out about 300 bodies today, including pregnant women, babies and whole families crushed in their own homes.

There are too many crazy things in one day to describe. Today I travelled to or from town on the back of a bike, truck, ambulance and air-conditioned car. An American surgeon at the governor's office asks me to translate for a couple who he thinks may be GAM supporters trying to get food for their village. The woman has glaucoma and her boyfriend just wants medical treatment for her. He says they look just like the other couple. Schools have just restarted, but hundreds of pupils gather outside buildings which cannot be used as they are still filled with mud, chunks of twisted metal and broken pieces of wood. A car is still embedded in one shop. Another cavalcade of cars with sirens zooms past which means another bloody politician from Jakarta or international head of state has arrived, so the whole relief operation has to stop 'for security reasons' and, of course, lots of interviews with the press.

Small mosques stand shining white in the midst of stinking mud and wreckage. Why they have survived I do not know. Were they built to a much higher standard than most buildings? Or is it to do with their open structure of arches? Their survival has enormous significance to people here who are mostly deeply religious. The closest parallel I can think of is the way St Paul's Cathedral became a symbol of hope for Londoners during the Blitz. In Islam, you are supposed to accept your loss and move on without making a big fuss. But, four weeks on, there are people quietly crying in corners late at night.

It makes me so angry that the Indonesian authorities have announced that the emergency phase is now over and we're in transition to the recovery phase. And of, course, the UN etc follow suit. It denies the reality of what is happening here. If bodies were lying unburied 3-4 weeks after a disaster and whole families were walking for days to get food supplies in any country in Europe, America or Australia, it would be called an emergency, not transition. It's all part of the politics here. The military and the nationalists in Jakarta have worked up a frenzy about the presence of foreign troops on Indonesian soil. They are terrified Aceh will go the same way as East Timor and want to close the place to outsiders again. US agencies are taking a pessimistic line and think foreigners will be expelled from Aceh soon. They are advising international NGOs to pull back to Medan, but that's unlikely to happen yet.

Also, everyone is jumping on the tsunami bandwagon. All this talk about a tsunami warning system. The conservationists are already talking about mangrove replanting to prevent damage from tsunamis in future. And the plans to set up a people-free buffer zone along the coast. The whole of Indonesia is an earthquake zone, but tsunamis only happen once every 100-200 years. There's little point putting up barriers around the north-west coast, when the next quake could be centred around Padang or Bengkulu! It all sounds horribly like a scheme to keep the 'little people' out and let big business in. All that empty flat land is ideal for large-scale shrimp cultivation and big palm oil plantations.

I'll write again when I get back to Jakarta. Internet access is still very limited, unless you go down to the information centre at the governor's house. But that is full of army, government and probably military intelligence. Anyway, there's too much to do here.