Monday, January 31, 2005

Crisis in Aceh ~ Dos and Don'ts in Visiting Aceh

I found the following articles quite interesting... written by Indonesian (Andreas Harsono for Inter Press Service News Agency) as part of Tsunami Impact series. An array of experiences and thoughts that give us a glimpse into what's happening to volunteers, journalists, and relief workers on the ground as well as what the ordinary locals face in the media about Aceh and the impact of this catastrophy.


Dos and Don'ts in Visiting Aceh

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan 31 (IPS) - If one wants to visit Aceh, probably to be involved in humanitarian work or just hang out as a ''tsunami tourist'', which is quite the trend here, there are some dos and don'ts they should consider.

Firstly, don't expect to sleep in a hotel. Do bring your own sleeping bag and mattress.

If you come in a group, do rent a house.

But rentals are pretty high though. It is the rule of supply-and-demand at work, with Aceh's few houses and an insatiable demand from aid agencies, U.N. workers and journalists. Do also have a heart for the more than 800,000 Acehnese who lost their homes - for them it's a choice of sleeping out in the open or in relief centers.

Before the Dec. 26 tsunami hit, spawned by a huge 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Meulaboh in Aceh's western coast, Aceh was a forbidden land for foreign non- governmental organizations (NGOs). Only those with good ties with the Indonesian government were allowed it.

In the 1970s, there were less than 10 international NGOs having offices in the capital Banda Aceh. Now, the provincial capital seems to be tsunamied by an outpouring of international kindness.

To date after the tsunami, according to Laura Worsley Brown of the Banda Aceh Media Center, which coordinates emergency relief information between all the aid groups, there are 199 foreign NGOs and 259 media organizations working in the province.

Their arrival, obviously, has caused prices of basic commodities to skyrocket.

On the scene are big news names such as 'Reuters', 'Associated Press', 'BBC' and 'Kyodo' as well as international relief agencies such as World Vision, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The ones operating on small budgets, both journalists and aid volunteers, are what the locals describe as the ''parachute operators'' - those that visit for a while, getting some news footage and working with the victims on a short term basis. Then, they soon leave.

The co-operation between country missions, too, has been exemplary.

''In our place, the South Korean mission fumigated all the mosquitoes and flies. It is pretty safe now for us,'' Cuban medical doctor Lazaro Orlando told IPS.

Mosquitoes and flies are, indeed, a huge concern.

Mosquito repellent is a must and everyone, here seems to wear wearing surgical masks to keep out the flies from either entering their nostrils or mouth.

Disease-spreading insects aside, there is also the problem of perception of the disaster area.

While more than 95,000 Indonesians have been buried and a further 133,000 are listed as missing, presumed dead, in the province - most parts of Aceh are still green with many areas still intact.

Aceh is huge - with a large interior - but network TV news transmission has done injustice to it. It seemed that the whole province was wiped out by the tsunami. But it hasn't.

The killer waves only devastated the coastal areas from Ule Lhee, near the provincial capital, to Nias Island - about an hour's flight time from Banda Aceh.

The colossal damage can be explained in the following terms.

Aceh's coastal areas, like most human habitats worldwide, are mostly urban centers with bustling commercial areas and trading outposts.

When the killer waves struck, the entire physical infrastructure along the coastlines collapsed like a pack of cards. The destruction was just phenomenal.

Witnesses said the waves went inland as far as five kilometers. ''It was as tall as the sky,'' said Abdul Hanan, an orphaned boy, who lived in Lamno, near Banda Aceh.

Artine Utomo of 'TPI', a television station in Jakarta, correctly concluded that the tsunami victims are mostly middle and upper class people. ''They had solid houses made of bricks, owned shopping areas and ran solid businesses.''

''Now all that is gone,'' added Utomo.

Simpang Lima is an intersection in downtown Banda Aceh, once a place where teenagers donned their Sunday best or men sipped their black coffee in a famous shop located in a row of shops between the Baiturrahman mosque and the Catholic cathedral.

Sadly, it is a ghost town today.

Some Acehnese believe spirits of the dead are haunting the tsunami-hit areas.

''I pulled a corpse by the head. I pulled it too hard. The body became headless,'' said Adi Suryana, a volunteer of the Aswaja Foundation - a local relief agency. ''So I scrambled to collect his teeth, his ears, his other body parts: collecting them and putting them immediately into the body bag. I don't want to be haunted.''

Motorists and motorcyclists are now avoiding major streets in the capital where thousands of dead bodies lay scattered for more than a week.

''In the first four days, people were on their own, looking for their lost relatives. We did not care yet about the dead bodies. Only on the seventh day, we began to clean up the streets,'' said Zurnalis, Suryana's colleague.

Residents call people like Suryana the ''Burma Teams''. ''Burma'' is an acronym for ''pemburu mayat'' -- which in Indonesian means ''the corpse hunters''.

''I would like to say that the real 'Burmas' are the Indonesian marines and the Malaysian soldiers,'' said Suryana, adding that these two groups retrieved most of the bodies. (END/2005)


Goodbye World, We Can Do It Alone - Indonesia's Kalla

JAKARTA, Jan 23 (IPS) - The world has come together to aid survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami, and by large it has been welcomed in the tsunami-hit countries in South and South-east Asia. Yet in Indonesia's Aceh province, the welcome is proving awkward and signs are emerging that there is paranoia about the presence of foreigners on Indonesian soil.

Early this month some Indonesian legislators, especially members of the Muslim-based Prosperous and Justice Party (PKS) and the Golkar Party, which dominates the parliament, raised the issue of foreign troops being a ''threat to Indonesia's sovereignty'' in Aceh in northern Sumatra - which has been the hardest hit in the Dec. 26 tsunami.

The death toll in Aceh and northern Sumatra stands at more than 166,000 of the over 220,000 deaths reported so far. The number of homeless in Aceh is estimated at 800,000.

Hidayat Nur Wahid, a PKS member and currently the speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly, said that the arrival of U.S., Australian as well as other foreign troops to help the tsunami victims should be controlled.

''They should go out within a month,'' said Hidayat, adding that his party is worried some foreign soldiers as well as the international aid workers might help ''Christianise'' the predominantly Muslim Acehnese.

Such concerns were soon brought up in a cabinet meeting led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Presidential spokesman Alifian Mallarangeng declined to reveal who brought up this issue in the meeting but the cabinet agreed to set the withdrawal deadline in three months time.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who attended the meeting, later told the media that ''foreigners should get out of Aceh as soon as possible.''

''Three months are enough. The sooner (they leave), the better,'' he added.

Indonesians, not foreign troops, according to Kalla, should take charge of caring for those who lost their homes to the tsunami. When asked about long-term relief efforts, he said: ''We don't need foreign troops.''

Up to now, the international relief efforts in Aceh have gone on smoothly with some 1,700 foreign troops having joined hands with 2,500 foreign aid workers and volunteers.

But a combination of nationalism, xenophobia and the inability of Indonesia to deal with Aceh's violent past, may work against the huge international relief effort at the expense of 800,000 homeless Acehnese.

Aceh has been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations there against the Free Aceh Movement - known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM -- which has been fighting for independence since 1976. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since then.

The government put the province under martial law on May 19, 2003 before reducing this to a state of civil emergency one year later.

Ironically, Hidayat and Kalla's statements have found resonance in many Indonesian circles that are opposed to the United States.

For one, U.S. forces aren't anybody's pin-up heroes after the bad publicity they received from the Abu Gharaib prison atrocities in Iraq. Indonesian newspapers have carried the prison scandal pictures in full and that has only fuelled resentment against them. Many Indonesian Muslims see the U.S. troops as staunchly anti-Islam.

Nonetheless, many have termed Kalla's statement as short-sighted and are concerned about Indonesia's actual capacity to cope with post-disaster management if it had to do it all by itself.

The vice-president, an advocate for the implementation of Islamic law in Indonesia, is also the chairman of Indonesia's disaster coordinating body.

Nono Anwar Makarim of the Jakarta-based Aksara think tank called Kalla's statement as one bordering on ''xenophobia''. He made the reference in a column for the 'Kompas' daily newspaper.

Makarim also castigated both Kalla and Hidayat for raising the issue of the adoption of Acehnese children by so-called ''Christian foreigners'' - which has been played up by the mainstream media here.

In hitting out against the two Islamic nationalists, the columnist wrote a story on two children just to illustrate their narrow mindedness.

The two Indonesian children were orphans and abandoned by their communities, he said. ''Later, they were adopted by a North American family,'' said Makarim.

''The eldest son is now studying in a top Texas college while the daughter has just finished university and is working in a medical company,'' he added.

In the column's punch-line, Makarim wrote: ''To see how happy they are, I forgot to ask about their religion.''

Interestingly, another concern came from Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, the chief of the Indonesian military, whose 40,000 soldiers practically control Aceh. Sutarto revealed the Indonesian military only has five cargo airplanes and seven helicopters.

''What can we do with these five Hercules and seven choppers? Do you think we could bring the cargo from (Aceh's provincial capital) Banda Aceh to Meulaboh (the worst hit area) by bicycles?" he was quoted by 'Tempo' magazine as saying.

Banda Aceh has the longest airstrip in the area and Meulaboh is the on the province's western coast. It takes only 30 minutes to reach Meulaboh by helicopter but nearly 20 hours by motor-boat.

U.S. troops are using 17 Black Hawk, six Chinhook and two Super Puma helicopters to deliver emergency relief supplies inland. These helicopters are backed up by four Hercules transport aircraft.

From the Australian side, four Hercules transport carriers and four helicopters are in action. In total, there are more than 50 helicopters and 20 cargo planes used by international troops in the global relief effort.

Ironically, if the logic of the ''foreign'' and ''non-foreign'' presence is used in Aceh, many Acehnese would consider the Javanese as the ''unwelcome guests.''

GAM rebels officially consider ''the nation of Java with the national capital Jakarta'' as the colonial ruler of Aceh. The separatists have even refused the Bahasa Indonesia spelling of Aceh, insisting instead on the use of the word 'Acheh' - as the region was known in 1873 when the 'Achehnese' sultanate fought against the Dutch colonisers.

The confusion over the disaster management in Aceh stepped into another sad phase when President Yudhoyono on Jan. 17, just five days after the cabinet meeting, held another meeting and criticised Kalla's disaster management body. He ordered the establishment of an autonomous body to supervise the reconstruction of the province, saying that the disputed ''deadline'' - to get foreign troops out -- was only a ''timeline''.

That Yudhoyono went into damage control is understandable. Aceh, could be the new president's biggest test, and the barometer by which his entire five-year term will be judged. (END/2005)


Narrow Minded Nationalism in Aceh Aid

JAKARTA, Jan 11 (IPS) - It began quite mysteriously through mobile phone text messages just days after the Dec. 26 undersea quake and resultant killer waves flattened the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, killing over 100,000 people.

The messages were short and clear. They warned Indonesian Muslims that Christians were adopting Acehnese orphans, presumably to be taken out of Aceh and then converted to Christianity.

In the capital Banda Aceh, activists of the Muslim-based Prosperous and Justice Party later put up posters in public spaces with this warning: ''Don't let Acehnese orphans be taken away by Christians and their missionaries.'' The party also printed their telephone numbers, encouraging the public to hand over orphans to Muslim child-care centers instead.

The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, puts the number of affected children, including those who have been orphaned, injured or traumatised by the disaster -- which devastated coastline communities along the Indian Ocean -- at close to 1.5 million across south and south-east Asia.

In the worst hit Indonesian province of Aceh alone, close to the epicentre of the earthquake, some 35,000 children are estimated to have been affected.

Hence, it is only natural for one to be moved by the plight of these destitute children.

Kristiani Herrawati, who visited Aceh with her husband, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also took the initiative to show compassion and wanted to adopt a 13-year- old Acehnese boy, Muhammad Dede Nirwanda.

In the second week after the disaster, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who also heads the national disaster center, announced that he would include the Indonesian Council of Ulemas to help decide on the adoption of Acehnese orphans.

''We will help the children to keep their faith. No adoption could be done without the ulemas' (Islamic clergymen's) supervision,'' he said.

The media of Palmerah, a Jakarta neighborhood where top newspapers and TV channels are headquartered, played up Kalla's statement. But not a single media outlet could quite explain what prompted the vice-president and Muslim activists to focus on religion when the bulk of attention was on how to get emergency aid fast to the tsunami survivors.

In Kalla's statement, the innuendo was palpable: relief services had been motivated by religious considerations. Perhaps such worries had been sparked because international relief organisations -- whose workers are mostly westerners and presumably Christians -- were among the first to rush to Aceh.

But it seems more a case of paranoia: there is nothing to suggest that international relief workers are keen to take away Acehnese children and neither have Indonesian churches demonstrated such altruism.

''Just report it to me if there are churches doing this,'' said Nathan Setiabudi of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia.

Aceh has an immense symbolic importance for Muslims who constitute 88.3 per cent of Indonesia's 201 million citizens, according to the 2000 census. It was the seat of the first Islamic kingdom in the archipelago in the 13th century, when its neighbors were under Hindu or Buddhist rulers.

But Aceh is also the home to a secessionist movement, though not one prompted by religion. Still, with Muslims comprising 97.3 per cent of Aceh's 1.7 million citizens, the adoption issue, however imaginary, worries many Islamic activists, including Jusuf Kalla -- himself a Muslim.

Since 1976, the Free Aceh Movement or GAM has battled the Jakarta government in a war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives. The rebels contend that the Javanese, the dominant ethnic group in Indonesia, annexed Aceh illegally when the Republic of Indonesia was founded in 1945.

In 1979, the authoritarian Suharto regime began a military operation to crush the rebels. General Suharto did not succeed in his move. In May 2003, the post-Suharto Indonesian government again placed the province under strict military control and isolated the area in an attempt to crush the rebels. Human rights groups and victims' families have charged that Indonesian troops have singled out and killed civilians suspected of being rebel supporters.

In a bid to pacify the rebels, Jakarta also granted Aceh partial autonomy that permits the limited implementation of Islamic law. Although the separatists are devout Muslims they have rejected autonomy saying that independence is more important to them than the rule of the land in accordance with Islam's tenets.

Aceh is now an internationally recognised disaster area after world leaders like U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and many others visited the area to get a first-hand account of the extent of the destruction.

Besides the foreign dignitaries, Indonesians of various shades, too, have made their way there - from Islamic militant groups to students and politicians.

As of such, it is inevitable that politics now rears its ugly head in the distribution of relief aid.

The Indonesian military or TNI controls the distribution of emergency relief in Aceh, and GAM rebels have accused them of using the disaster as a pretext to carry out more attacks on the resistance. The TNI on the other hand claims that the rebels are stealing aid, although relief agencies, which have been travelling freely outside the main towns, have not reported any problems.

Bakhtiar Abdullah, a GAM spokesperson in their exile headquarters in Stockholm, welcomed the arrival of international relief workers, but deplored the presence of members of the ''thuggish so-called Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the terrorist Indonesia Mujahidin Council (MMI)."

''The actions and words of both the FPI and MMI are against the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Hadith and contradict the tolerance and faith of Achenese Muslims,'' said Bakhtiar.

''Neither the FPI nor the MMI has any credentials or skills in disaster relief, and their presence is clearly intended as a provocation to the people of Aceh,'' he added.

But the TNI has welcomed both groups, saying that they came to the province to help the tsunami victims. The media of Palmerah, too, has distanced itself from reporting on the GAM.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is fanning suspicions that the U.S. troops helping out in the relief efforts could be providing assistance to the GAM rebels instead. During the past nine days, U.S. Navy helicopters have rushed food, water and medical supplies to areas that are likely to remain inaccessible and in desperate need for weeks.

But President Yudhoyono is trying to put a stop to these claims.

''The presence of foreign servicemen here is apolitical; they are conducting a humanitarian operation. After some time we will take over the operation, but for now we are grateful for their presence,'' he said.

But the president's admission, as well as his deputy's remarks, shows very well that sectarianism and narrow-minded nationalism are the hidden agendas in Aceh's relief operation. (END/2005)

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