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Indonesian Military Slowly Providing Access to Isolated Aceh Villages

Scott Bobb

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, government troops have just completed the first of more than 50 bridges needed to provide land access between the provincial capital and the western coast, which was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami one month ago.

Indonesian soldiers, sweating in the midday sun, hammer in the last bolts of a temporary bridge outside of Loknga. The bridge replaces the concrete and steel span that was the gateway to Aceh's western coast, but was washed out one month ago by the tsunami.

They are working especially hard because the head of the Indonesian army, General Ryamizard Ryacudu, is here on an inspection tour. General Ryacudu, a tough former storm trooper, says 53 bridges and more than 50 kilometers of road were destroyed of the highway to Meulaboh, 200 kilometers farther down the coast.

General Ryacudu says building even a temporary road will allow the government to operate more easily in the region. But he says that, most important, it will provide access the villagers along the coast so that they can receive relief supplies.

The west coast is lined with low-lying fishing villages that lost as much as two-thirds of their populations to the giant wave of water.

Unwilling to wait for the bridge to be finished, the general steps onto a raft made of boards and drums and is pulled across the river. On the far side, he and his entourage of aides and civil engineers board trucks that have been airlifted over and set out along the coast.

They pass the shell of a cement factory. Its smokestacks are bent and the fuel storage tanks lie on their sides like crumpled paper cups. A giant barge still loaded with coal lies across the road. A ship lies in the harbor, keel-up, the bodies of its crew still inside.

Ten kilometers further on, the road is blocked by another washed-out bridge. The general stops at what once was the village of Leupung, a fishing village lying along a broad, sandy beach.

Here the devastation is total. Not a single house or structure is standing. All the trees have been uprooted. Broken water pipes are scattered over the ground like straws.

Three makeshift tents housing the survivors stand at one end of the beach, another three at the other end. Of the village's 6,000 residents, only 40 survived.

General Ryacudu, after consulting with his engineers, orders a new road to be cleared several hundred meters back from the surf.

The general says he wants the emergency road all the way to Meulaboh finished in three months.

As the general turns to leave, a dozen villagers who have been squatting in the shade of a tent come out to his truck carrying a few bundles. After a few words, they climb aboard.

Their leader, Sarbini Amin, who looks much older than his 45 years, says they have walked for two days from their village, Desa Seungko Meulat, 20 kilometers away. In his village, only 150 of the original 700 inhabitants are still alive.

Mr. Amin says they received some food from the U.S. helicopters but that it was not enough for everyone. They hope to join some fellow villagers who have already moved to a camp in Banda Aceh.

The Indonesian government says it is trying to group the 400,000 people made homeless by the tsunami into two dozen large camps, where it can more efficiently provide them with food, water and medical care. Others, who are now living with friends or relatives, are to be given cash stipends.

Some of these people who made their living from the sea say they will return to their villages if the government helps rebuild them, and begins providing regular assistance. Others say they never again want to see the waters that took away their homes and families.

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