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A refugee's cry echoes: 'we didn't get anything'

Washington Post - December 30, 2004

Alan Sipress, Banda Aceh – At the Indonesian military's primary airfield here, cartons of instant noodles, bottled water and medicine were stacked high inside a hangar Wednesday, awaiting delivery to camps filled with desperate tsunami victims. Two Australian military transport planes landed with more water, military rations and medicine, adding to a mountain of assistance marshaled at the base. But the supplies remained behind the gate.

Ten young men in civilian clothes lugged boxes of chicken-flavored instant noodles into the hangar for storage, showing little urgency. At one point, they stopped and broke open a box to snack on dry noodles. An Australian officer who offered to provide an unloading team, a mobile hospital, and medical and evacuation services was asked to come back the next day to discuss the proposal.

Five miles away, people camping out on the grounds of a television station's offices said they felt abandoned. "There has been no help," lamented Yasin, 42, sitting quietly on woven mats spread beneath a broad shade tree, hugging his young daughter. "We haven't gotten any help at all, nothing."

At the far end of the mats rested a single sack of rice, mostly empty. He figured it would last two more days. "I don't know what I should do then," added Yasin, clad in a gray plaid sarong. "I don't have anything left."

Among the green tents and tarp shelters hurriedly thrown up on the outskirts of the city of Banda Aceh, the only medical attention offered Wednesday to thousands of refugees from the tsunami three days before came from a dozen student volunteers handing out painkillers and vitamins.

Foreign relief officials expressed alarm Wednesday that supplies airlifted to the region were moving too slowly from the airfield to camps and shelters around Aceh province, including more than two dozen here, in the provincial capital. Some officials described coordination among the Indonesian military, civilians and foreign governments as exceedingly poor.

Senior Indonesian officials acknowledged serious bottlenecks, saying that telephone lines and roads had been severed across the province, hampering relief efforts. The officials added that the government of Aceh province had collapsed because so many public employees were dead or traumatized by the loss of family members.

Michael Elmquist, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jakarta, said the challenge confronting Indonesian and foreign relief agencies was unprecedented. "To organize a rescue operation of this size in a couple of days has never been done," he said, adding that. delays in moving aid out of the airport were "one of the key problems that needs to be resolved."

Elmquist reported that UN agencies had begun dispatching substantial aid to the province and planned in coming days to supply 12 tons of fortified biscuits, 8 tons of noodles, half a ton of medical supplies, 5,000 body bags and 50 generators for hospitals.

At the airfield here, Air Force Lt. Ardian Budi said six Indonesian and two Malaysian transport planes hauling supplies had arrived by early Wednesday afternoon. He said the Indonesian military was devising a plan to convey the relief to distant refugee camps. Representatives from nearby camps would be asked to come to the air base to pick up their supplies. He gave no time frame.

As he spoke, the first Australian C-130 transport began unloading its cargo. Group Capt. John Oddie of the Royal Australian Air Force walked briskly to the apron, where he huddled briefly with Indonesian Maj. Gen. Bambang Darmono.

Oddie told the general he was prepared to fly seven missions a day into the airfield carrying supplies for Indonesian government and UN relief efforts.

He offered to provide a team of Australian air terminal specialists and equipment to dramatically accelerate the unloading of Australian and Indonesian planes. He also proposed providing a mobile hospital, medical staff and evacuation services to move survivors to hospitals in other Indonesian cities.

Darmono responded that he was not authorized to discuss the offer because his appointment as the military coordinator of regional relief efforts would not take effect for at least another day. He asked Oddie to return to Banda Aceh on Thursday for more talks. Oddie diplomatically agreed.

"You'll see a lot more of us in the next few days," he told reporters at the air base. "You'll see a profound strength to the relief effort building over the next few days."

Back at his camp, Yasin's family had been fortunate by the measure of death around them. They had moments to stock up on a few essentials, the rice included, and escape to higher ground before the floods flattened their home in a village on the edge of Banda Aceh.

Later, Yasin bundled his wizened mother-in-law, wife, four children and the provisions into the back of a stranger's pickup truck and headed to the camp. He heard Indonesian Red Cross workers in the camp announce that rice was on the way. "We didn't get anything. Maybe they didn't have enough to go around," he said.

Also at the camp was Abu Bakar, 42, unshaven since the weekend. He said he was worried about how long he could hold out. He and his family had squeezed into one of about a dozen green tents erected there by the Indonesian government.

Many others huddled under blue tarps strung between trees. Laundry hung from the support ropes.

Abu Bakar recounted how Indonesian Red Cross workers announced through loudspeakers a day before that refugees from each village should delegate someone to receive rice. Abu Bakar went to claim the rations. "They gave us one sack to share among more than 100 people," he fumed, putting down his cigarette. "How can we survive on that amount of supplies?"

In a neighboring tent, another villager, Basaria, 47, said she decided not to fight over the rice offered by relief workers. Instead, she found one of the few shops in Banda Aceh that had reopened and she paid inflated prices for scarce provisions. Beside her on a blue tarp were two unopened sacks of rice, a tray of eggs and a box of bottled water.

At the white guardhouse near the front gate, about a dozen people pressed up against the windows. Inside, health and agriculture students from a local university were dispensing medicine donated by a bank. They had little to offer beyond basic antibiotics, painkillers and vitamin C and B1 tablets.

The city's main hospital was battered by the flood and abandoned. The primary center for medical care is the military hospital.

On Wednesday, its lobby and corridors were crowded with scores of injured people lying on stretchers. Many had cuts and broken bones. They slept while intravenous drips hung beside them. The floors were streaked with mud and blood.

Aryono Pusponegoro, surgeon who arrived earlier in the week from the capital, Jakarta, to coordinate medical teams from elsewhere in the country, said the situation at the hospital was improving. The approximately 500 corpses in the hospital morgue would soon be buried and all the injured would be moved from corridors into wards. Also, Pusponegoro said, more than 100 doctors had flown in along with dozens of nurses and paramedics.

He planned to dispatch medical teams to the camps, but it would require gasoline, which is running very short in Aceh.

Pusponegoro added there were not enough body bags. And although the hospital had enough beds for seriously injured patients, the beds had no sheets. The hospital, he said, had run out of traditional Islamic shrouds for wrapping corpses and been forced to strip the beds.