Recovery Efforts in Tsunami-Hit Indonesia
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MARGARET WARNER: We turn to Zamira Loebis, a reporter for Time Magazine in Indonesia. Born and raised there, she also teaches English literature at the university of Indonesia. She’s just returned to Jakarta after spending three days in Banda Aceh. And we spoke with her by phone late this afternoon.
Zamira Loebis, welcome. You were in Banda Aceh for three days, give us your impressions of what you saw.
ZAMIRA LOEBIS: The first impression was that the whole city, it’s not the city that I used to know, you know, full of bustling and full of happy people around strolling; it has been turned into a huge garbage dump basically and full of debris everywhere — from debris of wooden planks, cars, bicycles, and, you know, dead bodies from animals like snakes, rats, chickens, goats, even water buffalo and unfortunately human beings.
The most, you know, significant is the change in front of the beautiful old grand mosque. It is a mosque built in the 19th century once was an icon of Banda Aceh.
Prior to the big tidal wave, if you go to the mosque you see very nice, cozy green grass in front of the mosque. I remember people strolling there in the afternoon back then. But the other day the place was full of muddy debris.
MARGARET WARNER: You talk about these bodies. Were they, had they been stacked up, had they been sort of arranged in any kind of way, or were they just lying there randomly three or four days after the tsunami?
ZAMIRA LOEBIS: Sunday night they started collecting the bodies, and in the beginning they still had enough carpet or mattresses or whatever they had to cover the bodies, but in the end because there were so many of them they ended up not having anything, so they just took up the bodies from the debris and just left them, you know, lying there until the Red Cross picked them up.
But they only had two ambulances that night, so there were not enough people to help bring in the bodies to the Red Cross point.
MARGARET WARNER: Now tell me what kind of relief efforts, what kind of aid you saw while you were there, that had actually gotten in, either in the way of supplies or in the way of relief workers.
ZAMIRA LOEBIS: Unfortunately I only saw relief efforts only when I was about to leave. I actually went down to…..on the second day, and on our way back to Banda Aceh.
I saw dozens of trucks bringing in food or water, and gasoline, on my way back in the morning on the third day. But before that people just, you know, tried to help each other out with whatever they had, and practically everybody was a victim in Banda Aceh.
MARGARET WARNER: We’re reading reports of relief supplies stacked up at the airport, both at Jakarta and at Banda Aceh but not able to be distributed. Did you see any of that?
ZAMIRA LOEBIS: Yes in Jakarta, when I returned, and in Banda Aceh before I flew back to Jakarta. I saw stacks food and medicine still intact, in a hangar of the airport.
I think that was because there was not enough relief workers to actually, you know, load these things to a truck. Even if you have enough workers, then there were not enough trucks there.
MARGARET WARNER: So in the absence of relief assistance, how are the survivors that you spoke with, how were they coping?
ZAMIRA LOEBIS: You know, Acehnese are very strong people and resilient. In sense of food, I’m afraid it’s a sad scene of people starting to eat instant noodles without cooking it first because there is no clean water, and some of them have even started to use the contaminated water because they couldn’t stand it any more.
So definitely, you know, the relief workers will have to work very, very fast before diseases start to spread.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Zamira Loebis, thank you so much.
ZAMIRA LOEBIS: You’re welcome.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, an official view of the situation in Indonesia. We get that from Soemadi Brotodiningrat; he’s Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States. Mr. Ambassador, welcome. And, first, our deepest sympathies –
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Thank you very much.
MARGARET WARNER: The death toll in Indonesia just jumped horribly in the last 24 hours from 45,000 to 80,000.
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Was that because regions were so inaccessible you just had no sense earlier of how many had died?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Well, yes. One is because it happened in the less developed part of Aceh. You know the eastern part of Aceh is the region which is more developed and the western is less developed.
So even under normal circumstances, this is already, it’s accessible but, it was accessible, but not as easily as in the east part. And the second is that the loss of life is such that practically all the government, the local government and the administration are paralyzed.
You know, I got the information that, the vice-governor that you just saw in the picture, even he couldn’t find his secretary – so, you know, it was a slow, since, because everything is paralyzed. But then the vice president came and then things get a little bit step by step moving.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you have reason to think that the death toll will get higher?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: I think yes, because yesterday I was with C-Span, and my office, the official count that I got from Jakarta was still 27,175. That’s yesterday morning. And when I was about to leave my office in the early evening yesterday, it was already 32,000, almost 33,000.
And when I came back early this morning to my office, it was already past 45,000. So the number of 80,000 perhaps not yet certified, but with the rate of increase that we experienced in the last two days, I don’t think that it is exaggerated –
MARGARET WARNER: You said the local government there had really been just about paralyzed. Does that help explain the difficulty in distributing relief supplies that are coming in?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Part of it. But the other part is the damage in the communication network, like the roads and so on. That’s why the most means of communications which we are now needing are helicopters which can pass by the damaged roads.
MARGARET WARNER: I see, you mean and air drop in the supplies?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Not drop in, but the helicopter can land, and come back again to take because trucks can reach only a certain point. There are roads, half of it damaged, so four-wheel vehicle cannot pass. But motorcycle could still pass. But what can motorcycle carry? So helicopter is the key.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, this Aceh Province as we know, has been the scene of a guerrilla war that’s been going on for a long time there and your government declared martial law, what, 18 months ago.
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: And had some 40,000 soldiers up there. Did most of them survive? What have they been able to do?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Well, they are part of the victims too. I think they are perished by the hundreds, the soldiers.
But this one is actually, I wouldn’t say that we were lucky, but still because of the presence there, then although we are not yet fully effective, they begin already to do the relief operations. But then again, they themselves are part of the victims, they perished by the hundreds.
MARGARET WARNER: I had read that when martial law was declared, your government had not only banned journalists from Aceh Province but really international relief organizations.
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Did that compound your problem of sort of getting up and running now, because these organizations had nothing on the ground?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: No, because this lasted, this martial law lasted only eight months and then we replace it with a civilian emergency.
MARGARET WARNER: With a civilian emergency?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Yes. And when it happened, Aceh was already under civilian emergency. There were already some NGO’s relief operations there, there were already some outsiders there, but yes under the civilian emergency, meaning that there were still some restrictions.
MARGARET WARNER: Is the fact, though, that there has been this guerrilla conflict up there, is that hampering the relief effort in any way?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: No, now no longer. I think both the central government, the military and hopefully the guerrillas, they come to the sense that we have something much more urgent to deal with. And our military commander has already declared that they will convert all the military police into the relief operation.
MARGARET WARNER: Going back to the survivors, we interviewed a top expert at the World Health Organization here yesterday, and he warned, as he has elsewhere, of the danger of now disease claiming so many more lives.
Are you, do you have any reliable reports yet about whether serious disease has set in there?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: I’m glad that we touched upon this, because up till now the public attention are now focused on the dead; this is the most shocking of course.
But then we, we don’t have to forget that there are those living victims which need to be taken care of urgently.
And we begin, the government begin to do whatever they can, and also medicines coming from all parts of Indonesia, and also from abroad are out there, but as you know we still are being hampered by the distribution network because of the damage in the communication network.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that really enough aid is arriving or in the pipeline, but it really is just being blocked by all these distribution problems?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Well, I can say that it’s already enough … but even those who are not yet enough there, we still have the difficulty to really distribute in the remote areas.
I don’t think that the difficulty still persists in Banda Aceh because in Banda Aceh now it’s very much accessible.
MARGARET WARNER: Because it’s right at the sea coast right there at the tip of the island.
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Right. But in the western coast, especially in the remote area and small islands off the coast, I think it’s very difficult still.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, do you have, and this may be an unfair question, but any sense of – I mean, we just saw all those leveled flattened buildings, just whole blocks and blocks, of what percentage of the buildings, the infrastructure has been completely destroyed?
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: It depends on the place. For instance in the city of Malabo, for instance, it’s more than 20 percent of the buildings is flattened to the ground.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with us.
SOEMADI BROTODININGRAT: Thank you very much.