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Relief Arrives in Indonesia but Snags Delay Distribution

  • Nancy-Amelia Collins
  • Jennifer Janin

Relief has been arriving by the ton in the area hardest hit by Sunday's tsunamis - Indonesia's northern Sumatra Island. Supplies are clogging the airport as relief officials struggle with logistics for distribution, amid mass devastation. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins is in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and speaks with our senior Asia editor in Hong Kong, Jennifer Janin, about the chaos and what is holding up distribution of urgently needed aid.

Janin: Nancy, you have been on the ground in Aceh now for a few days, and you have driven about 700 kilometers from Medan, where you arrived by plane, to Banda Aceh. One of the problems, we understand from the region, is that while tons of aid has been arriving and log-jamming the airports, it is not getting distributed. Can you describe what you have seen?

Collins: The first leg of the trip - about 350 kilometers - we saw almost no aid trucks whatsoever on the road. The only aid that we saw coming through were things collected locally. We left around 4:00 a.m. this morning in pouring rain for the eight-hour drive to Banda Aceh. Again, we saw thousands of refugees along the way.

Banda Aceh itself is a city of death. The smell of thousands of uncollected corpses is the first thing that hits you when you come in here. And these corpses are lying still buried beneath collapsed buildings, on the streets. People have started to burn the corpses for lack of a better way to get rid of the bodies.

I spoke with Gordon Viess, the emergency officer for UNICEF, who said the main concern now is how to get the aid to the people. He called it a logistical nightmare. He said some of the problems are that they don't have enough trucks, they do not have fuel, fuel is expensive, the problem with so many government officials who were killed, there are very few people left. The government has collapsed here. Like I said, on the road, we did not see any convoys. There should have been tons of convoys coming up to deliver food by road, from Medan.

Janin: What we understand from the region is that aid officials are just not to be seen in certain areas where there are thousands of people in need, Number One. And Number Two, how is it that they do not have the manpower to start distributing this aid? There are four separate militaries - including a major U.S aircraft carrier now - ferrying supplies. What is the hold up? Where is it going wrong?

Collins: You know, it is not clear. From what some of the aid workers are saying, you can go up to the airport, and you can see aid just lying in there. They are saying they do not have the trucks, they do not have the petrol for the trucks, they do not have the people to ferry the aid to the refugees. They also say they do not have a clear idea of how many refugees there actually are - not only just in Banda Aceh itself, but in the surrounding, outlying areas.

Janin: The Indonesian military is a huge presence in this region because of the separatist conflict. Are they anywhere to be seen?

Collins: You do see the military in and around Banda Aceh, and even on the outside. But you don't see them clearing debris, or doing things like that. I have seen them guarding petrol stations, or walking around the streets with guns out, presumably to protect from looting. But we have not seen any looting. It really appears to be chaotic.

Janin: Can you describe refugee camps or areas where people are congregating, who have no place else to go? Where are they? What do they look like? Can you give us a sense of what it is like there?

Collins: There is no refugee camp. What there is, is just thousands of people, who go to the mosque, because that would be the traditional place of refuge for any Acehnese person. But the mosques are filled to capacity. So, the people are sleeping outside the mosques. Some are just putting up makeshift shelters with anything that they can find. In Banda Aceh itself, there's no official refugee camp. There is some aid obviously getting out because the people are eating in the mosques. But it just is not enough.

Janin: We have seen in Thailand, that very quickly in Phuket, for example, also hard hit by the tsunamis - set up communication boards, identification lists of people to try to identify family members who may have been killed or who are still missing. Is there anything like that set up in Aceh?

Collins: Obviously, it is going to have to be a question for sometime down the road, because nothing of the sort has been done here. There has been no attempt to identify bodies, except of course by family members. But no official attempt to identify. Things are chaotic still.

Janin: From the officials you are talking to in the region and relief agencies on the ground, Nancy, what is the timetable? What are the priorities in the next few days, and what are they to be trying to accomplish?

Collins: Certainly the priority for everyone in the coming days is just getting aid to the people.

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