Indonesia Diary: Alleviating Suffering Amid the Rubble
Peter Biro is part of an IRC team providing aid in Indonesia's Aceh province, the region closest to the epicenter of the December 26 earthquake and hardest hit by the resulting tsunami. He is recording his experiences in a series of journal entries, starting with his January 6 arrival in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.
Upon arriving in Banda Aceh everything seems strangely normal. The airport is crowded and chaotic, but so are most Indonesian airports. The first kilometers on the way into town are equally deceptive: farmers working emerald paddy fields, the traditional canteens, warungs, filled with men eating noodles and smoking traditional clove-scented cigarettes. About half way into Banda Aceh the visitor hits an invisible line where the scope of the disaster becomes painfully clear. Unbelievable amounts of rubble, pushed by the force of the lethal wave, litter every meter of land.
I arrived here a few days ago to support the International Rescue Committee's emergency relief efforts here. Surveying the wreckage, I walk along a canal which quickly became a death trap for everyone living in its proximity. It is an apocalyptic scene. Cars are lying on their roofs in a sea of black mud, twisted tree trunks and planks rammed through concrete walls. Next to a broken TV set and the twisted fame of a motorcycle lies the bloated body of a woman wearing a green bra. Bodies, dark orange and black, are everywhere, spreading the awful stench of decay in all directions.
A group of men, residents of the area, are clearing the rubble. Next to them lie two badly decomposed bodies, faces covered with cloth.
“They were our neighbors,” says Haji Muhammed, who lived in the block closest to canal. He and his family managed to run to safety when the water roared in, his house, seconds later blown away by the force of the tsunami. One of his most valuable possessions, a cow, was stuck in the mud for days and is miraculously still alive, but only barely. With a quick cut to the animal’s throat Haji Muhammed ends the creature’s suffering.” I now have nothing left,” he says, struggling to control his emotions.
The IRC worked in Aceh before this disaster through a humanitarian aid consortium, CARDI. We provided water, sanitation and other types of assistance to conflict-affected communities with a work force of mostly local staff members. Since the tsunami, several dozen IRC experts from around the world have been dispatched to Aceh to provide emergency assistance and more are trickling in every day to support the effort.
Six mobile health teams consisting of a doctor, nurse and support staff have been organized and they will quickly set up teams of local community health workers. Similar teams with expertise in health, water, sanitation and child trauma have been assembled and all are fanning out in the coming week to aid victims in outlying areas.
IRC doctors and water and sanitation experts conducted quick assessment missions in two areas north of Banda Aceh this week. They say the health situation in the disaster area is dire with many reported cases of diarrhea, respiratory diseases, crush injuries and infected wounds.
“There is a big risk of disease associated with overcrowding, such as cholera,” IRC’s Doctor Joel Selanikio told me.
To help alleviate some of the suffering, a two-ton shipment of essential medicines from AmeriCares is arriving at Banda Aceh airport this weekend. The shipment, containing essential medicines such as antibiotics, supplies for hospitals and water purification sachets, will be distributed as soon as possible. Two additional shipments totaling almost 30 tons are expected to arrive in the next two days.
Water supply efforts will be focused in outlying coastal villages and the interior. One of Banda Aceh’s two water purification plants is up and running, providing enough clean water for the majority of the city. Since chlorination of the water has never been the practice, people are in the habit of boiling their drinking water which will help stem the spread of water-borne diseases.
Today, the IRC managed to rent three boats for the next critical three-month period. The boats, with a 5-15 ton capacity, will be loaded up with medical supplies, 2.5 tons of World Food Program food packages, non-food emergency items, as well as with equipment to ensure clean water and sanitation. The first trips are scheduled for Sunday with a possibility to either stay and provide emergency services if needed or come back and restock.
“We are bringing with us chlorine to purify wells, as well as two 6,000-litres water bladders,” says Frank Broadhurst who will be part of the first mission.
An additional water taxi has also been rented to ferry needed supplies to the outlying coastal areas in the weeks ahead.
On Sunday, the boats will attempt to reach Lamno, some six hours journey south of Banda Aceh, which had an estimated pre-tsunami population of 15,000 people. Nobody knows how many people perished there. Over the course of next week, the IRC will make similar trips to Calang, Teunom and the somewhat bigger fishing hamlet of Meulaboh. The situation among the survivors in these villages, just like in most places on the badly-struck western coastline, remains largely unknown.
“Meanwhile, another team will cross the island from Medan to access the situation in an area from which there is virtually no information,” says emergency response coordinator Gillian Dunn.
To facilitate the IRC's extensive deliveries, IRC staff members are currently clearing the debris around its two warehouses. Water tanks, health kits and pumps are floating around in a thick layer of black mud. Wooden debris lie shattered in the yard. Several human bodies can be seen in the rubble.
A neighbor shows me around in what used to be her house. “There is nothing for us here now,” she says.” We are moving in with relatives in Jakarta as soon as we can.”
IRC staff managed to salvage at least 600 hygiene kits from the warehouses. These are scheduled for distribution on Sunday, January 9, to displaced families in the village of Lambaro Angan, some 12 kilometers north of Banda Aceh. The displaced, currently seeking shelter in a local mosque, come from a coastal village ten kilometers away, on Aceh’s northeastern tip. The original population was 2,500 people before the disaster hit. Only 250 survived.
The IRC is also involved in the early stages of assisting local efforts to coordinate a mass measles vaccination campaign. “Measles is one of the most contagious infections and can be fatal in younger children, so even one case in a crowded camp can trigger an epidemic,” says Gillian Dunn.
Next: Journey to Ruined Calang