Monday, March 28, 2005

Three Months After The Catastrophic Earthquake & Tsunami (7 of 13)

The Associated Press
March 16, 2005

Tsunami Victims Fear Foreigners' Exit

Mulia, Indonesia (AP) --
When Sofyan Mahdi needed crushed cars removed from his tsunami-devastated neighborhood last month, he called the United Nations, which quickly took care of the problem. By contrast, it took 10 trips to Indonesia's state utility to get electricity, and he is still waiting for local officials to fix the water system.

The slow and often inconsistent response of the local government is nothing new in the province of Aceh. But with the government planning to scale back the role of foreigners by March 26, the 40-year-old teacher worries he and his family will be left to fend for themselves.

"This neighborhood will recover, but only with the help of foreigners," said Mahdi, walking past demolished homes and yards still awash with sea water three months after the Dec. 26 tsunami. "If we are forced to depend on our own government, it could take years."

Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab announced last week that the government plans to limit the number of foreign aid groups and require those not affiliated with donor countries or the United Nations to reregister with authorities.

The European Union has called on Jakarta to let all groups remain in the province.

But the military and some nationalist politicians fear that foreigners -- who were largely banned from Aceh before the tsunami -- could increase international awareness and sympathy for the region's separatist movement.

Rebels have been fighting since 1976 for independence for the province on Sumatra island's northern tip. More than 13,000 have been killed in the conflict and both sides have been accused of rights abuses.

Aid groups have largely remained silent about the new policy, which is expected to hit small charities hardest, partly over concerns that that protest could attract unwanted attention from authorities.

Indonesia's Aceh province was hardest hit by the tsunami, with more than 126,000 people killed and more than 90,000 missing and presumed dead. A majority of villages along the northwest coast were wiped out and many neighborhoods in the provincial capital Banda Aceh were reduced to rubble.

Local governments in Indonesia were paralyzed by the disaster, with hundreds of offices damaged or destroyed and at least 10,000 of the nearly 50,000 employees either dead, missing or left homeless, according to the World Bank. Hospitals and health clinics have faced shortages of doctors, nurses and medicine.

The scale of the disaster and the limits of local authorities prompted the government to welcome foreign troops and foreign aid groups. Together with the Indonesian army, they were credited with averting a humanitarian crisis.

The problem, activists and diplomats say, is that the government is not equipped to rebuild the province without significant foreign support. Acehnese government agencies are among the most corrupt in Indonesia -- the provincial government is on trial for graft -- and most have not begun to recover from the disaster.

"There are no plans from the government, and there is no guidance despite their promises to do something,'' said Azwar Hasan, an Acehnese activist working with local governments.

Without a strong foreign presence, activists say the government could pocket much of the billions of dollars in aid money or force unpopular, poorly planned policies on the Acehnese.

Shihab, who has overseen the government's relief operation, insisted that despite the new policy a strong foreign presence would be welcome in the months to come.

"We can understand the complaints," he said. "We have learned lessons that we have to be more patient and get a full understanding of the situation of our brothers and sisters in Aceh who suffered from this disaster. We have to listen to them."

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