A lucky few have tents. For the rest, Aceh's rain means relentless misery

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, it rained hard on Indonesia's 391,000 internally displaced people, as it has done every day this week. It poured down with pitiless, tropical force and persistence.

Yesterday, it rained hard on Indonesia's 391,000 internally displaced people, as it has done every day this week. It poured down with pitiless, tropical force and persistence.

The lucky ones in Banda Aceh can sit out the rain, but only in tents crammed with up to 20 men, women and children. Toilets and water purification systems have arrived, but only in the past few days. Food is handed out regularly now, but it is often not what refugees or camp managers had in mind. Piles of donated clothes lie around, scant consolation for those who have lost everything.

It would amount to bare survival - if the weather were dry; but in rain like this nothing can disguise or alleviate the misery.

The lot of those outside the city is infinitely worse. More than a quarter of Aceh's villages, 1,550 of them, have been destroyed. Along the west coast, still unreachable by road, the agencies are only now establishing a foothold as aid begins to arrive by sea as well as the air. Some village survivors take shelter under tarpaulins and sheets of plastic. Most have nothing but the palm trees.

Yesterday, the top Indonesian minister responsible for relief gave the army and relief agencies a two-week deadline to get the IDPs into 24 semi-permanent relocation centres scattered through the province. Speed is called for, not merely to get them out of the wet but also to stop them streaming towards cities like Banda Aceh.

That impossibly tight deadline looks a breeze compared to the other announced by Alwi Shihab, the Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, who declared that: "The excavation of all destroyed buildings and bodies is to be completed within two weeks."

This is something that ought to happen: in a deeply religious society such as Aceh's, the idea of tens of thousands of fellow Muslims putrefying in the wreckage of their own homes is deeply disturbing and repugnant. But the task is gigantic.

Mr Shihab announced that the total of confirmed dead is now 58,281, with a further 50,000-odd missing, presumed dead. On Sunday the army pulled 2,500 bodies out of the wreckage and buried them in the colossal mass grave they have excavated on the road to the airport. And on account of the rain, that was a slow day.

Yet the evidence of one's eyes is that Mr Shihab's second deadline is more unrealistic than his first. Amid the endless acres of desolation, here and there one can see a mechanical digger, scraping away. The excavation work that Mr Shihab insists must be completed in two weeks is being conducted not by the army but small bands of volunteers. It's like taking a toothpick to a landslide.

Why not draft in tens of thousands of soldiers? They have other fish to fry: the dirty little war against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), on hold for two weeks, looks as if it is starting off again.

Yesterday, a senior army officer, Colonel Ahmed Yani Basuki, told journalists in Banda Aceh that GAM insurgents have been "hampering relief operations". As the toothpick diggers scratch away, Aceh is braced for a return of the killings that have already taken thousands of lives in conflict.

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