Grief still permeates Aceh on the eve of Powell's flying visit

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The Independent Online

A man with a haunted look sat beside me and thrust a dog-eared photograph of a smiling family group into my hand. He pointed to a girl and a boy. "My children," he said. "Both dead. I need to tell my sister in Jakarta, but my phone isn't working. Would you call her for me and tell her the news?"

The grief that permeates Aceh is unbearable. My translator, Arif, has lost his father; his friend, Joe, has no family any more. His parents, uncle, two brothers and sister died in the waves that consumed this corner of Indonesia. Joe sits at home, watching television in silence, breaking off only to pray. Waves of anguish emanate from him. He looks so brittle that you fear he would break if you touched him.

Wracked by civil war for decades, Aceh has lived under military rule for 20 months and seen hundreds of civilians murdered in the name of a crackdown on separatist rebels. Now it is gripped by a tragedy of epic proportions, the scale of which hits you anew every day.

There are 270,000 refugees living in tented camps, waiting for aerial food drops and hoping against hope that their missing relatives will, by some fluke, turn up alive.

A few shops and market stalls are starting to re-open in Banda Aceh. But the mood is one of collective despair. Here, as elsewhere, death was indiscriminate. Tiny bodies swathed in plastic are among the corpses still lying amid the foul rubble, never to be identified.

The official death toll is 94,000, and rising.

Yesterday, the aid effort was thrown into disarray after a commercial plane landing at Banda Aceh collided with a buffalo wandering across the only runway. No one was injured, but the aircraft lost a wing and an engine, and the runway was closed for most of the day. Hercules C-130 troop carriers, which have been bringing in emergency supplies, were unable to land.

In a rare moment of humour in Aceh, one bystander joked that the Australian military contingent at the airport would probably toss the dead buffalo on a barbecue.

With mountains of aid already at the military airfield, helicopters continued to deliver food and medicines to remote communities, with US choppers alone flying 25 missions. Authorities were doubtless relieved to see the problem solved before the arrival today of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, who is said to be keen to offer his experience of dealing with cyclone damage at home.

Mr Powell will take a helicopter flight over the west coast during his lightning trip. The spectacle of a senior US figure making a high-profile visit to Indonesia will be intriguing, given the torrid relationship between the two nations.

But these are extraordinary times, and US and Indonesian military commanders are working in tandem, apparently without friction, to get aid out, after a deplorably slow start.

US military officials have been at pains to defer to their Indonesian counterparts, particularly in public, repeating over and again that their hosts are in charge. "The relationship has been very co-operative and friendly," said Lieutenant Commander Michael Hsu, who is in charge of co-ordinating the US helicopter missions.

The buffalo incident left hundreds of Acehnese hoping to visit family in Jakarta stranded at the airport. Sitting on a bench, waiting for the runway to be cleared, a young man said that his grandparents, brother and sister were dead. Another brandished a list he had made of 15 extended family members who perished, and then looked slowly around him, as if in disbelief.

It will take years for Aceh to be rebuilt. Banda Aceh is half ruined and the once densely populated west coast is a barren wasteland. Recovering from mass trauma and bereavement will take even longer. Acehnese now live in terror of the usually placid Indian Ocean.

Most of them lived by the water, and many lived off it. Urban residents worshipped the beach. It will be difficult to persuade villagers to return to the coastal plains.

Arif loves fishing, but has put away his line. "I wonder if I will ever dare go near the water again," he sighs.