Tuesday, January 04, 2005
SOUTH ACEH UPDATE
Sorry all, for the days of silence here, Agam's chauffeur talents were required to transport some folks here to the upcountry on Friday. I was able to continue following news from Aceh via satellite though, so I'll bring you up to date with what I know.
First of all, I have to put on record -- even though most readers will have no idea of what I'm praising here -- that MetroTV has been providing absolutely fantastic coverage of this calamitous event. I wish you could all get a look at some of the things we're seeing here. And I don't necessarily mean grotesque pictures of corpses, and heartbreaking images of rows and rows of young children looking just as if they'd lain down together for nap-time. In particular I have to put on record, the wonderful reporting by a young woman presenter for Metro, Najwa Shihab. Usually a host for news programs in the Jakarta studio, she was on the scene in Aceh by day 2 of the crisis. She immediately focussed attention on any shortcomings of the relief coordination, and was very forthright about these issues when interviewing officials. Najwa was obviously emotionally affected at times by the reports she broadcast, and she showed amazing fortitude at times. A few nights ago she spoke with the chairman of Media Group (which MetroTV is part), Surya Paloh. Mr. Paloh was also on the scene right at the beginning, loading up Media Group's corporate aircraft with aid supplies and going in to Banda Aceh himself. Najwa was very articulate in explaining a few of the problems with coordination and efficiency which she had seen, and being pretty forthright with her boss as to what is needed to fix them. She showed her emotions a little more than usual that evening, perhaps being even a bit aggressive with Mr. Paloh in her desire to get important points across clearly. I hope she didn't get into trouble, because she hasn't appeared since. Maybe somebody thought she was getting too emotionally involved in the story and needed a break. I hope not. Najwa was doing a terrific job of reporting with heart and soul.
If anyone has seen the amateur video taken from the second floor terrace of a large, palacial house in Banda Aceh (CNN had it, for one) -- with the black waters seen churning up to the second floor of houses nearby, that video came from Metro. There has been more video shown in recent few days, from Simeulue Island, Meulaboh, Calang and other towns on the coast. An aerial shot yesterday was labelled as "Labuanhaji", which is just north of Tapaktuan. Still no pictures of Tapaktuan or that vicinity. There was an AP report which I hope is just the result of irresponsible and uninformed statements attributed to the Indonesian ambassador to Malaysia, in which he states that at least 400,000 Acehnese have been killed, and that several towns overflown by aircraft (Tapaktuan included in these), showed no signs of life at all. In conflict with that, we have some other more hopeful information. It was on Saturday I think, that Metro interviewed a woman from South Aceh at a refugee camp in Banda Aceh. She and her family had come to the capital by boat to look for relatives they were worried about there. She said that Sawang, a coastal town just north of Tapaktuan was not badly damaged.
Then there are the relatives who make contact with each other through seeing pictures on news footage, for example a young boy named Dede last night who had been evacuated to Medan from Meulaboh, and whose relative in Banda Aceh saw his face on tv. Dede lost his entire family in Meulaboh, a very brave 13 year old who basically saved himself, slept up on the mountain until being evacuated. The wife of the president met him there yesterday, so touched by his ordeal that she offered to adopt him. Dede said no, he had to go back to Meulaboh to find his family. A day or two earlier, there was a man from Meulaboh interviewed in Banda Aceh -- he had walked all that way, over 200 km in four days. He said that all the towns between Meulaboh and Calang had been wiped out. He said there were some people left, but no towns. Descriptions of the tsunami at Meulaboh are awful -- when the first one hit, not so many people were caught. But then people in the outer / higher parts came down to help save people who were swept up in the wave. Seven to ten minutes later the second, much bigger wave arrived and all were swept away. More than half of Meulaboh's population (which I've seen cited as 50,000) is thought to have perished.
By the way, some of the world media are really mangling these names. An ITV report shown on CNN had the reporter referring to "Bondai Aichee" or some such for Banda Aceh. The same guy bothered me when he said that the village he was standing in had a name, but that it doesn't matter what it was because it doesn't exist anymore anyway. Of course it matters to someone, if not to him, and maybe he should just go to Bondai Beach instead. The city of Calang is said to have ceased to exist, and I will remember it well as a very pleasant and friendly little coastal city. The name is pronounced Chalang, for in Indonesian the letter "C" represents the sound "CH" (which is why Agam likes coklat and comes from Kanada). Meulaboh seems to give reporters conniptions too. Just say it like M ' LA-boh, glide over the first vowel just like when you address the Duchess of wherever as "M'lady". That vowel sound is the common one in Acehnese language, just like the eu-like sound in Thai. Hearing Acehnese language frequently reminded me of Thai speech. It's really not very far away.
MetroTV has also made some very moving music and image montages that I wish everyone could see. A young popular singer from Aceh has recorded a song written for this terrible event, and she is seen in the studio, interspersed with all the other scenes which carry such urgency. They've also used the Titanic song, which seemed fitting ("We Will Go On") and others that were also past choices after terror bombings, like REM's Everybody Hurts and the old Hollies' hit He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother). But the one that gets me every time, and I mean every time, is an old Acehnese song that my family says has not been heard for quite a long time. It has a truly Aceh feel in the melody, a single female voice that carries such a plaintive quality. I think the song probably originates from Indonesia's independence struggle, which Aceh played a major role in winning. The Acehnese lyrics are translated to Indonesian subtitles, which I will try to note down later. Very powerful stuff. The kites in the paddyfields have broken their strings... If it were in my power, I'd make that haunting song the theme of the entire international relief effort.
Amazingly, the USA continues to be criticised by some quarters for not doing enough, being stingy and so on. Whereas people on the ground in Aceh are saying that until now it's only the Americans, Aussies and Indonesians who are doing anything. There are pledges, there are plans for meetings in Geneva and press conferences at UNHQ, all the sort of stuff the UN is excellent at. Oh yeah, and taking credit (see Belmont Club and the above linked The Diplomad for more on that). Too bad we can't tap into the billions raised by the Saddam/UN Oil for Food Scam!
Meanwhile USS Lincoln Carrier Group and another group of US ships are in the area now off the Aceh coast, and getting the needed supplies ashore. Our friends in Padang at PT Mentawai Wisata Bahari have their efforts with sea-borne relief underway with two ships now, and the capacity to absorb more resources. (Anyone who has any connection with a company or organisation which might be able to help by accepting online donations for the Mentawai effort, thus making it easier for people to give, please contact me here or Mentawai directly). We need more relief being sent through Padang, with Medan and Banda Aceh airports already not able to cope with the traffic, and now today Banda Aceh airport is out of commission after a passenger jet collided with a water buffalo. One side of landing gear is screwed, it sits resting on the engine and wing, and no flights go in or out for the time being.