Monday, January 31, 2005

Dos and Don'ts in Visiting Aceh

By Andreas Harsono

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 about 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 operating 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.

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