Agam's Gecko
Thursday, January 13, 2005
This was the name bestowed upon the rescue and relief operations launched by the non-Indonesian first responders -- the coalition of the willing which quickly joined with the United States in the early days of the disaster to move ships and aircraft into the area and begin distribution of the tons of material that would mean life or death for thousands of Acehnese people. The ad hoc coalition has since been "disbanded", and their efforts theoretically "folded" into the UN's "coordination and leadership". Whichever way it's framed, the work goes on, the dozens of sorties per day by the big transport planes and choppers, medical and other teams are reaching ever further afield to reach the people who are still in desparate need. I will continue to hope that this vast collaborative effort could still live up to the original theme -- Operation Unified Assistance.

Just how unified that assistance will be in the coming weeks and months, is a question that seems up in the air today. Most surprisingly, it is the Indonesian authorities themselves who seem to be shaking the unity of the mission, and at the same time raising doubts about who is in charge of policy, and who speaks for the government. There have been conflicting positions right from the start, within the military itself. The Army top brass said that TNI will be 100% devoted to relief efforts, and had accepted the call for a total halt to hostilities, offered on the part of GAM. At the same time, officers in Aceh say, "The war against GAM continues." This is not very coordinated or unified, and it's only within one organisation. The President himself has not appeared very decisive, which is a surprise for me, and VP Jusuf Kalla begins now to look like a loose cannon, which is not such a surprise.

Whoever it was that decided it would be a good idea to facilitate the movement of hundreds of the previously mentioned Mujahidin of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and the thugs of FPI into Aceh, I can see where such facilitation can conceivably come from anywhere within the TNI and not necessarily from political leaders. It's known that there are officers and elements in the military which are quite sympathetic to the Islamist movement. As with the general public, I believe such radical sentiments are a fringe within the military, not a mainstream ideology. I can see how such facilitation could have happened without necessarily any direction from above. But... when these radical ideologues begin calling for infidel rescuers to get out of Aceh within one month, and the Vice President then backs them up with some almost belligerent-sounding language of his own, it makes me begin to wonder who is in charge of policy.

Vice President Kalla said that he wants all foreign military contributions to the emergency rescue effort, to be gone out of Indonesia within 3 months. Well fine, it's very likely that by that time the emergency aspect will have diminished, refugees will have proper structures to stay in, supply lines will be well enough established to keep a steady flow of everything essential for life, functioning health systems, transportation, communications infrastructure etc. So maybe by then there will be no point in having Australian and Singaporean service men and women doing any of this stuff, because the Indonesian government will have everything well in hand. Maybe. But even if so, it just doesn't sound so good to hear Mr. Kalla seeming to echo those anti-"kafir", anti-US or anti-whatever comments from the loony thugs of FPI et al. These people are worried that the Acehnese will become contaminated by too much contact with these foreigners, when in fact the Acehnese have never been xenophobic to begin with, as those demagogues are.

It looks bad from the outside to hear such things from within leadership circles, and it comes across as pettiness, insecurity and ingratitude toward a world which is only trying to help. I don't think many people actually have this attitude toward the assistance operations, but those that do, now have reinforcement of it from some of their leaders. I listened to a woman phone caller to Metro yesterday, saying that she didn't like to see those foreign soldiers doing humanitarian work, because it made her feel like they wanted to "take over" the area. Some people are just going to have this kind of suspicion, it will be dispelled in most cases by actions not words. They will watch, and most will realise that the assistance was offered with genuine concern, not with a hidden plan to take control of part of the country. A few loonies of course will never have their suspicions dispelled, but I'm sure that the woman caller would eventually realise that a Japanese medical team was not in Aceh to occupy and oppress the place.

Now we have a new directive from the government, not satisfied with their earlier attempts to frighten relief operations out of certain regions of Aceh, and not satisfied with their subsequent strategy of simply ruling sectors off limits on grounds of rebel activity. The ruling came out yesterday, that foreigners are henceforth restricted to Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. You want to go outside the city? Fill in some forms, take them to the police and wait for approval. I wish I could believe this is just a minor rule to ensure some local officials have an avenue for extracting a little bit of "smoothen out the process" money from rich foreign journalists. But I think they are truly serious, they expect to keep all those foreigners confined in two places, and minimise contact between them and the Aceh population. I have thought that one of the non-horrible results of the disaster is that it will be difficult to again close off Aceh so completely as they had done since martial law imposition in May 2003. But it's evident that some of the elite are obviously wasting no time in trying to close the door again.

Here is another mission to deliver assistance in a unified and coordinated way, to the most desparate areas still waiting for help in Aceh. The folks in Padang who sprang into action on Day 1, and who I have been referring to as the "Mentawai - Aceh" effort, now has a website with more information on their daily progress and what they've been finding in the field. They are committed to reaching, and assisting as needed, the communities on the many offshore islands and remote parts of the coast. One of their boats, a ferry called the Sumber Rezeki was at Tapaktuan last weekend, moving up to Calang this week. They have been the first help that many of these have seen to date, and you can follow their activities and daily updates from the field, at The Electric Lamb Mission.

I'm sure the site will soon have some photos of the activities of the crews and medical teams on these boats, but in the meantime we can read about them in Newsweek magazine: Building Sea Bridges.

Somewhere along the way during the past few days, while searching out information on latest conditions on the coast, I came upon a link to the US military's page for news on US Defence Dept. relief operations. It's actually quite a good source for getting a handle on current state of affairs, up to date news articles on what role the various ships and the other assets are fulfilling, and so on. There are some interesting details in there, such as how some creative folks among the ships' crews designed and built 20 mass distribution water manifolds, out of things they could find on their ships -- including stuff that was slated to be returned to home bases, as surplus. The ships are producing over 400,000 gallons of drinking water from sea water every day. I've read elsewhere that the Australians have about the same production capacity with the land-based equipment that they brought in. The Navy NewsStand also has a tsunami relief operations page.

A child salutes heli liftoffThe Children of Lamno is a short photo-essay, of which the sailors are putting up daily. The children in the pictures really love acting up for the camera, but this boy is for real. He won't be an easy mark for the mujahidin later. Another good one is People of Meulaboh. All photo-essays and news articles are indexed together, here.

They use some awfully funny spelling on the captions and titles - like the Mglaboh on the above series, and Calang is given in the old spelling, Tjalang. There was another series or two taken at a place called "Jalan", and I thought, "yeah, they landed and asked where they were.. Jalan Diponegoro Apasaja... and it was recorded Jalan (street). Of course it's actually Calang again! In another series, some devastated place and a damaged mesjid obscured by some trees. The caption said that the survivors were flying the "emergency" distress signal, or some such. Part of the international system used by seafarers to communicate with flags and pennants. Of course it was the Red & White, the national flag! So the caption writing could use a bit of work, but the pictures are terrific.

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