Among the green tents and tarp shelters hurriedly thrown up on the outskirts of this city, the only medical attention offered yesterday to thousands of refugees from the massive...
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Among the green tents and tarp shelters hurriedly thrown up on the outskirts of this city, the only medical attention offered yesterday to thousands of refugees from the massive tsunami three days earlier came from a dozen student volunteers handing out painkillers and vitamin C.
Survivors pitching camp on the sprawling lawns of a local television station near the oceanfront capital of Aceh province, on the western island of Sumatra, had expected more from the relief effort. Now they feel abandoned.
“There has been no help,” lamented Yasin, 42, clad in a gray plaid sarong, sitting quietly on woven mats spread beneath a broad shade tree, hugging his young daughter while he spoke. “We haven’t gotten any help at all, nothing.”
At the far end of the mats rested a sack of rice, mostly empty. He figured it would last two more days.
“I don’t know what I should do then,” added Yasin, whose gray goatee matched his short graying hair. “I don’t have anything left.”
Scrambling for their lives
“We heard people yelling out a warning that the water was coming. We grabbed these things,” he said, pointing to the sack and a cluttered pile of pots, dishes and cups as well as a cooking stove and a bag of red chili peppers.
Nasir had bundled his mother-in-law, wife and four children along with the provisions into the back of a stranger’s pickup truck, which had paused in front of their home, and headed to the camp. He said he had expected to receive food. He even 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.
Survivors crowded into one of Aceh’s largest camps on the grounds of the TVRI regional offices also bitterly complained that food supplies were dwindling and that relief workers distributing rice had not provided enough for even a single meal.
Yet only five miles away, at the Indonesian military’s main airfield, cartons of instant noodles, bottled water and medicine were stacked high inside a hangar awaiting delivery to the camps. Two Australian air-force transport planes, among the first foreign relief flights to Aceh, since an estimated 35,000 Indonesians were killed by the disaster, landed yesterday afternoon with even more water, military rations and medicine, adding to the mountain of assistance languishing at the base.
Foreign relief officials said yesterday that distributing supplies from the airport to camps and shelters around the province, including more than two dozen in the provincial capital alone, is posing alarming difficulties. Some relief officials speak of exceedingly poor coordination between the Indonesian military, civilian officials and foreign governments.
Michael Elmquist, head of the U.N. Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Indonesia, said the challenge confronting Indonesia and foreign relief agencies was unprecedented.
“It’s really a question of organizing the distribution,” he said. “To organize a rescue operation of this size in a couple of days has never been done.” He called delays in moving aid through the airport “one of the key problems that needs to be resolved.”
Elmquist reported that U.N. agencies had already started dispatching substantial aid to the province and planned over the 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.
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Senior Indonesian officials have acknowledged serious bottlenecks, explaining that telephone service 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 had been killed or were traumatized by the loss of family members.
At the military airfield, 10 young men in civilian clothes were lugging boxes of chicken-flavored instant noodles into the hangar from the tarmac, where they had been deposited by an aging Indonesian C-130 military transport plane. There was little urgency in their endeavor. Then they stopped altogether, breaking open one of the boxes so they could snack on dry noodles.
Air Force Lt. Ardian Budi said six Indonesian transport planes hauling supplies had arrived by early afternoon and two from Malaysia. He said the military was devising a plan to convey the relief to distant refugee camps. Representatives from nearby camps would be asked to come to the airbase to retrieve their own supplies. He gave no time frame.
As he spoke, the first Australian C-130 began unloading its cargo. Group Capt. John Oddie of the Australian Royal Air Force walked briskly from the tarmac to huddle 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 U.N. relief efforts. Oddie offered to provide a team of Australian air-terminal specialists and equipment, which could dramatically accelerate unloading both Australian and Indonesian planes. He also proposed providing a mobile hospital, medical staff and evacuation services for survivors to hospitals elsewhere in the Indonesian cities.
Darmono responded he was not authorized to discuss the offer because his new 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 today for more talks. Oddie diplomatically agreed.
A daily struggle
At the refugee camp on the TVRI grounds, erected near the base of Aceh’s lush mountains, Abu Bakar, 42, unshaven since the weekend, said he was worried about holding out that long. 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 along the support ropes.
Abu Bakar recounted that Indonesian Red Cross workers had announced from loudspeakers a day earlier 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 raged, putting down his cigarette. “How can we survive on that amount of supplies?”
In a neighboring tent, another villager, Basaria, 47, said she had decided not to fight over the rice offered by relief workers. Instead, she had found one of the few shops in Banda Aceh that had reopened and paid inflated prices for scarce provisions. Beside her on a blue tarp were two unopened rice sacks, a tray of eggs and a box of bottled water.
“Some people can buy supplies,” Abu Bakar said, eyeing his neighbor’s riches. “But some don’t even have clothes. They came here just with their bodies, no money, nothing.”
The rural road in front of the grounds was buzzing with motorbikes and pickup trucks as more refugees packed into the camp while others left for the day, braving roads littered with debris and mud, returning to their villages to see what remained of their homes.
At the white guard house near the front gate, about a dozen people, many in ragged sarongs, 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, just basic antibiotics, aspirin and other painkillers, vitamin C and vitamin B1 tablets.
“People just come here and tell us what kind of sickness they have,” said Siska, 21, a slim student volunteer in a green T-shirt and jeans. She was herself a refugee. “I just read the description on the bottles and give them whatever medicine I have here.”
At the hospital
In the center of Banda Aceh, the city’s main hospital was seriously battered by the flood and abandoned. The chief center for medical care is now the military hospital.
Yesterday, the lobby and corridors were crowded with scores of wounded on stretchers. Many had suffered cuts and broken bones. They slumbered while intravenous drips hung beside them. The floors were streaked with mud and blood. Litter collected against the walls.
But Aryono Pusponegoro, a Jakarta surgeon who arrived earlier in the week to coordinate medical teams from around the country, said the situation at the hospital was improving. About 500 corpses now overflowing the hospital morgue would soon be buried and all the wounded would be moved from corridors into wards, Pusponegoro said. More than 100 doctors had flown in from other cities in the previous two days along with dozens of nurses and paramedics, he said.
With this additional manpower, he planned to begin dispatching teams to the refugee camps so that survivors, especially children, could receive care for injuries, be examined for diarrhea and respiratory ailments and receive vaccinations if required. But this would require gasoline for the doctors’ vehicles, and gasoline is running extremely short in Aceh.
Pusponegoro added that the hospital faced several other shortages. For one, there were not enough body bags. And though the hospital now had enough beds for seriously injured patients, the beds had no sheets. The hospital, he said, had run out of traditional Muslim shrouds for wrapping corpses and been forced to strip the beds.