Agam's Gecko
Monday, January 10, 2005
That may be an overstatement, but this is the first incident that I'm aware of, to result in casualties to relief crews. This morning, reportedly around 7:20 am, a US Seahawk helicopter went down in paddy fields just outside Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport, Banda Aceh.

The first reports I heard this morning indicated that weather conditions were bad -- this is the rainy season, and it's certainly an ongoing problem for the impromptu refugee camps -- but later reports also mentioned the possibility of mechanical problems. Witnesses were quoted saying they saw the chopper spinning around before going down. There were reported to be 4 US service people injured in the crash, and I think Metro said there had been 16 persons on board. This Seahawk had been working at least a week in Aceh, and had flown from the USS Lincoln to Banda Aceh this morning to continue ferrying material and people where they are needed.

There has not been anything in these reports to indicate something more than weather and/or mechanical failure, and I expect and hope that will be confirmed. But with sporadic shooting incidents during these past weeks between GAM and TNI, the unthinkable prospect of some idiot individual or group shooting at humanitarian aid flights will have to be considered by investigators. Adding a new factor to the conditions of civil conflict within the territory, some radical Islamist groups have been sending their "activists" from other parts of the country. These are not just USA-bashers like some BBC reporter or Guardian editorialist, these are USA-haters more along the lines of Pilger, or worse.

Their reputations certainly precede them: the Laskar Mujahidin and Front Pembela Islam -- Mujahidin Army and Islam Defenders' Front. I'm pretty sure the first group comes out under the direction of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, which is Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's group (his trial in Jakarta on terrorism charges continues). The MMI is dedicated to the conversion of Indonesia into a pure Islamic state -- something which has very little chance of happening in a democratic Indonesia. The FPI has been famous for years, relying on their talents for destroying cafes and discos, smashing up many different varieties of bottled beverages stocked by these establishments, ruining perfectly good billiard tables and smacking patrons around with pool cues before chasing them out of the sinful places. These are the sort of people who dress in the Arabic style in order to obtain deference from a segment of the public, ostensibly to respect their show of deep religious piety, while they themselves take the opportunity to wave swords around, shout "Allah-hu Akbar!", and destroy other people's property.

Not exactly what we usually imagine when we think of humanitarian organisations, eh? It's disappointing to hear that these groups are going to Aceh with the support of the Indonesian government. In fact, I'm sure FPI is still on trial for the nonsense they pulled at the start of Ramadan, just this past October. There are thousands of Indonesians who are ready, willing and able to help in Aceh, both individually and as part of recognised and respected NGO's. Doctors and other needed professionals are voluntarily going to help out. There is certainly no need for groups whose only proven abilities thus far have been waging war on Christians in Ambon or pool players in Jakarta.

A spokesman for the FPI seems to fear the hidden contents of that big aircraft carrier Lincoln. Well, where else could the American infidels be hiding all those knocked-down prefab beer parlour, billiard hall and instant brothel do-it-yourself kits? "It's OK that aid from the United States is here... If they open bars, sell alcohol or open prostitution centers, then we will fight them," said Hilmy Bakar. More amazing tsunami quotes, compilations from Chrenkoff who's also been using his well-honed talent with blogging separate news roundups on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Islamic world, to offer tsunami roundups too. Hit his main page for the latest one.

As I mentioned a few days ago, The Diplomad is essential reading right now, except even more so. The Chief Diplomad didn't get his wish to be reassigned to a corner of the Far Abroad where UN bureaucrats are few and far between. So now, tormented by interminable UN coordination and joint assessment team report assessment meetings, and Guardian reporters looking for some dirt on the US relief effort, the Chief Diplomad has decided to continue writing about the UN. It's not very pretty. I shudder to think of the same remote, pampered, UN aid elite driving in their fully-loaded Landcruisers from deluxe digs to a pricey French restaurant for dinner, who drew such contempt and alienation from the way they behaved more than 10 years ago in Cambodia, are now about to set up shop in Aceh. That will surely come after they've sufficiently established themselves in Jakarta. Now it's two weeks since the disaster, I'm watching Indonesian media all day long every day, and the only ones I've seen who are actually out in the field, are the TNI (naturally), along with the Americans, Australians and Singaporeans -- all contributing substantial air and sea assets and manpower. The UN is nowhere to be seen. There hasn't quite been enough coordination yet, or assessment reports, so they're still getting established in the capital. From the Diplomad:
Seeing these UNocrats perched at the table, whispering to each other, back-slapping, shaking hands, they seemed like a periodic reunion of old cynical Mafia chieftains or mercenaries who run into each other in different hot spots, as they move from one slaughter to another, "How are you? Haven't seen you since Bosnia . . .." As the hours wore on, however, and I nervously doodled in my note pad, shifted in my chair, looked at my watch, and thought about all the real work I had to do that evening, I decided that, no, labeling them mafiosos or mercenaries was much too kind. They seemed more to be the progeny resulting from a mating between a mad oracle and a giant carrion-eater. They were akin to some sort of ancient mythical Greco-Roman-Aztec-Wes Craven-Egyptian-bird-god that demands constant sacrifice and feeding, and speaks in riddles which only it can solve.
You'll have to read the rest if you want to grok the HPVE thing.

John Howard has been impressive, and more so every day. The warmth between President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and PM Howard has been much noticed in both their countries, with SBY reportedly telling Howard:
"You were the first to phone. You were the first to have aircraft on the ground," an emotional Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told John Howard at the start of their meeting at the presidential palace in Jakarta. "That is a gesture I will never forget," it was reported.
Quote from Beyond Wallacia.

I'm glad to see Mr. Howard being very clear that Australia's generous relief, reconstruction and development aid package is to be absolutely bilateral, and the UN will not be acting as middleman or getting their hands on it in any way. Far from the claims of international "civil servants", the UN is not needed to coordinate such things. Nor is it the only body with "moral authority" to dole out help, as claimed by a certain former British minister responsible for such things, with the name of Clare Short. Until the corruption within the UN (which made possible the 20+ billion dollar scam that was an "Oil for Food program") gets eradicated, donor countries and organisations should keep as much of the funds as possible, as far away from UNocrats as possible.

There may be some positive things to come out of all this sudden attention to a region which until now has received virtually none. Aceh is now open to the world in a way I would have never imagined possible, and it will be difficult to close again. The work which is now called for will take years, and Acehnese will be working will people from all parts of the world on reconstruction and development, health projects and so much more. It will be very difficult to ever close the province off from the world, as it was before. I was also happy to read Jakartass report that the pan-European observance of a three-minute silence last week, was well noticed and appreciated by Indonesian people generally. It's certainly been getting the media coverage, I'm still seeing video clips of Europeans standing still in the public places, automobiles stopped on the roads and trains on their tracks. Those are powerful images which convey their message without language, and it seems that the message was understood and appreciated.

On Saturday, I gave the link to an article with the above title, before I'd actually read the entire piece -- and I have a couple of quibbles about it that I want to set out here. The writer paints a rather monochrome picture of Islam in Aceh, which is actually very different from my own experience. His thumbnail history was fair enough, and the tourist guide section about various attractions of the province are accurate too. But for sure the writer is overstepping things to categorise the free Aceh movement as an "Islamist force". The underlying motivation for the movement is certainly not an Islamist ideology, much less the stark, intolerant Wahhabi Islam which the writer claims Acehnese follow. "The radical Wahhabi view of Islam held by many of the Bedouins of Saudi Arabia is the Islam of Aceh." That's just ridiculously wrong. His emphasis that Aceh is the one place in Indonesia where Islamic law applies, leaves the wrong picture, and makes it sound like Saudi, or Taliban Afghanistan! The only difference one notices with other parts of Indonesia, is simply that you don't find discos or drinking establishments. Surely the extent of sharia law goes beyond that, into family law or education, and no doubt one would find less than "progressive" aspects to these if one looked into it. But to just say that sharia law is in effect, that Acehnese follow "radical Wahhabism", and just leave it at that is very misleading.

I have always found the people I've met in Aceh, and especially those I've known for a long time in Tapaktuan, to be as tolerant of other religious faiths as people elsewhere in Indonesia. There are churches in Aceh, probably Confucian temples too. Try that in Saudi Arabia. You won't get stoned to death for doing what some mullah considers sinful, and you won't have a wall pushed over onto you either. If you steal something, you won't have your limb lopped off after a sharia court ruling, you will appear before an Indonesian civil, and secular, court. People enjoy music and entertainment, watch movies and television... heck, they even like to sing and dance! Just try to stop any Indonesian from dancing if he wants to, and see how far you'll get. Two words: Dang-Dut. Or is that two words. Never mind. You can't not dance to it, period.

Kids fly kites if they want to, men grow beards if they wish and shave if they don't, women wear the jilbab (hair covering scarf) if they want -- and don't if they don't want. This is not a stuck-up Wahhabist society, and to promote that perception is very wrong. The other thing I didn't like in the article was the repetition that Acehnese don't want tourists to come. Sure, I'd hate to see tourists come who had no respect for the social values of the place, but in Tapaktuan at least, lots of people expressed their hopes to me, that the region would soon become peaceful in order that tourism would start to come back again. The article might leave an impression of some sort of slightly kinder, gentler Taliban -- and that's just not true at all. But then again, even Indonesians in other parts of the country have these exact same wrong perceptions of Aceh ("they are fanatics there, weren't you afraid?"), so I guess I can't blame a foreign tourism writer too much for touting the myth.

Detik.com on Saturday reported further on South Aceh, and some of the regency sounds to be getting back to life as it was before Dec. 26. They report that with the repair of three bridges, all in Kluet Selatan municipality, goods and people are moving again between the coast and Medan, enabling the delivery of relief to the refugees of South Aceh, but especially to the hard hit city of Meulaboh. Prices of basic necessities have begun to return to normal. Detik.com says that the four regencies which were badly damaged by the tsunami were Labuhan Haji, Meuti, Sawang and Kluet Selatan. There are about 5,000 refugees, however it notes that fishermen who still have boats are getting back to fishing, schoolchildren are going to school, and electric power is being restored in areas where power poles were knocked down.

Yesterday MetroTV broadcast another exclusive: a very gripping video taken in Banda Aceh right after the earthquake. It showed quite a lot of the damage in the city, and the work which immediately ensued. It seemed to centre on the public market building, a concrete structure which completely collapsed. People were seen recovering good from stalls buried under the concrete slabs, and the surrounding neighbourhood looked very badly damaged. We see many activities of recovery and cleanup getting started, and many people apparently still very shaken up by the strong quake. They would have a bit more than an hour before the tsunami would hit them.

Then the scene shows an elevated view of a street in this same area, people rushing toward the camera, and behind them an advancing layer of garbage creeping up the street, debris pushed ahead of the rising water. The thing seemingly didn't look so scary to some of the people in front of it, just a few inches of water after all, and moving ahead at a rate that one could easily outrun -- and in fact some were staying ahead of it with a brisk walking pace. But the water just kept rising, rising, rising -- and the more volume, the swifter it became. People visible around the video camera begin to show their concern by trying to escape the area, with the water level rising swiftly, and without any sign of levelling out, what appears to be a pedestrian footbridge suddenly doesn't seem as safely above danger as it did just a moment before. The truly amazing thing about this was the sheer power that manifest itself there as the water filled the street with a super-chunky stew of boards, tin roofing, appliances, cars, trucks. The sounds were like the rapid fire of a machine gun or something, but each crack was a piece of wood snapping or someone's house coming apart, being reduced to small pieces which now join the relentless roiling mass of debris. Absolutely incredible. This huge mass of ..... well, everything.... is piling up above the water itself, rolling over itself and piling up even higher, as the street is not capable of handling the volume. The cameraman seems to have made it to safety atop Baiturahman Masjid, the big beautiful mosque which is Banda Aceh's symbol -- practically the only island showing above a sea of black water, an ocean now saturated with the pulverised remains of the city.

It's very easy to see, watching this film, how so many people died. Of course many got swept out to sea and drowned, but that churning, rolling mass of ..... everything ..... was as deadly a thing as I have ever seen. Anyone caught up in that wouldn't have had a chance, he would have been crushed a thousand different ways.

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