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After the Tsunami in Aceh Province (2005) PDF Printable Version E-mail


David Wallis

Contact David by email:   and visit:  http://www.p3c-aceh.org/

Danormal_2kapal[1].jpgvid Wallis is a retired manager who now lives in Medan, on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. In the early 1990's he worked at a cement factory (the only European among 600 workers) on the beach in Aceh Province and lived about 1 km away on the same beach. Forced to move to Medan by the insurgency in Aceh, he maintained contact with his many Indonesian friends.

Since the catastrophic tsunami of 26 December 2004, he has visited his former tsunamia_aceh[1].jpghome ground several times. He has become deeply involved in raising money and establishing schemes to bring aid to people living as refugees in the ruins of their own homes, many of them his friends of many years. David knows that they are likely to be in need for a long time to come. In his writing, he uses his wide experience of Indonesia to put the present problems into a deeply disturbing historical, cultural and economic context.

We met David over breakfast in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia in early March 2005. Since then, he has written to us and others of his experiences in a series of emails which are reproduced below:

25 March 2005

My old house on the beach was occupied by Indonesians and the women survived img2.jpgbut lost two children. My friend from England and his Acehnese wife had their own house and this was completely destroyed together with all their possessions. I did not lose mine as I had moved to Medan long before the waves came. There were also a few other ex-pats up there (not at the time of the tsunamis) and Cement Andalas lost about 200 employees out of a total of 625.

We were all img1.jpgthrown out of the province when the civil war began - and Aceh became a no-go area. When I lived up there in the early/mid nineties there were the occasional killings and tensions were mounting around the many villages. Indonesian soldiers are often cruel and many are into illegal businesses like drugs, illegal logging and questionable security jobs. My writing consists of two books which have not yet been published. One is on Indonesia and events that have occurred over the past 6 years and the other one is on Indonesian elections from 1992 until today and ongoing. I don't want people to think I am any different from others. I just happened to be in that place at that time. Nothing exceptional and just spent a lot of time with local people in a very simple fishing/beach life.

I took an interest in politics after retiring in 1999 and, of course, Indonesia oimg3.jpgffers anyone a real opportunity to see the largest Muslim population and try to come to terms with democracy and freedom. All the views that I have written are, of course, my own thoughts and one has to be careful here in what you say and especially what you write.

I will be returning to Aceh on Monday as we have collected Rp 100 million (just over US$ 10,000) from a tsunami hash run. The idea of this trip is to decide what to buy like sewing machines, fishing nets, things for the wooden barracks like img4.jpgcupboards and curtains for privacy. Perhaps you could circulate this summary to your friends as there are many people like me trying to do some good on a small scale - don't want people to think my actions are exceptional.

The tent life was not so bad - a bit hot but plenty of food. Toilet facilities were not good and privacy difficult. I'm taking an American doctor (never met him before) to Aceh on Monday (he flies in from Australia on Sunday) and he will stay a week and do some work round the camp sites. This is just another example of people giving their time to this cause in Aceh. Again thanks for the write up but I'm just an ordinary guy who happened to be in the img5.jpgwrong place at the wrong time, but I guess that is life. Will stay in Aceh for a week or two and I understand that email up there is difficult to find at the moment. Someone stole the wheels off the car in Banda Aceh and so an alternative needs to be found. But many things are getting back to semi-normal, like traditional markets and shops and fishing etc. Like all things in life, time will heal the scars. I hope you both are well and enjoying life as best you can - take good care and thanks again.

26 March 2005

Aceh Province, Indonesia. Riski.jpgIt is extremely hard to describe the human suffering from an area devastated by a tsunami, but it most certainly helps to visit the region so to gain a better idea. Aceh's coastline was almost totally destroyed, and I would doubt if many people saw the wave coming until it was too late. Most of the coastal area has little or no high ground, for that is the only place to run to, if you have time. Talking of time, there is a danger that this disaster will disappear off the radar screen worldwide – a normal and I think understandable occurrence as weeks go by – for we all have our own lives and problems.

For the people affected, this tragedy will linger on for months and even for years aajun-banda-aceh.jpgs they try to rebuild lives that have been totally destroyed. However, life goes on and now traditional markets are back up and running and shops are in the main open for business. Fishing is returning and land ownership problems are being sorted out, so progress is being made in areas which three months ago you would have thought were beyond human endeavour. It is quite amazing what people have done since December 26th 2004, and those that took on the body-hunting/burial exercise deserve special mention, for this was an awful job and one that is unfortunately ongoing. In Aceh Province, there are still over 100,000 people unaccounted for (now presumed dead), some washed out to sea and others still buried beneath the rubble.

When you alivelihood-support.jpgctually view the devastation it is easy to understand why bodies remain buried, as the clean-up exercise was, and still is, a mammoth task that will take months/years to complete. There are something like 1800 foreign aid workers of all kinds in Aceh Province; many of those have been there since early January 2005. My interest, apart from a humanitarian one, is that I worked and lived in Aceh Province for some years and in doing so became attached to the region and to the people. This is not a very easy place to live, as conflicts have been going on since 1976 between the Aceh Free Movement (GAM) and the various Indonesian governments – even to a state of war and, of late, martial law.

The province is riddled with historic hatreds of Jakarta rule, which over the yearsman-in-wheelchair.jpg has dominated Aceh by using the Indonesian Military (TNI) to control the region. Rather than go into the history, it would be fair to say that the Acehnese people have been subjected to all forms of human rights abuses and violations for decades and have never (and will probably never) receive any justice for the atrocities carried out by the military over the years. Now at least there is some hope for a peaceful future, as talks are in motion in Helsinki that are aimed at finding a sustainable solution to the many long-standing disagreements.

As a privateman-with-broken-arm.jpg individual (rather forcefully retired and now living in Medan) I would like the opportunity to repay in some way the kindness and friendship afforded to me by the Acehnese people since my visit there in 1992. It has been 6 years since I worked and during that time I have launched myself into trying to write two books. One on Indonesian events of all kinds since 1999, and another one on Democracy and Indonesian elections since 1992. Both are ongoing, as now the tsunamis have again turned Aceh upside down at a time when they were already in great difficulty. We recently ran a hash (jungle run on paper) in Medan and raised Rp 100 million (about US$ 10,000) and this we propose to spend on individual needs as identified on my trips to the region. This I hope will be ongoing, as we would like to do the giving on a loan basis, such that the repayments will come back into the fund and so on. That may not always be possible as many people have lost everything, and in those cases we will simply give them some money to start again.

If people do decide to donate towards this cause then I can personally assure themman-without-leg.jpg that every penny will be doing something good for people, who through no fault of their own have had their lives almost totally destroyed. I get back to the opening statement and in trying to get one's mind around this disaster – it is not so easy if you haven't witnessed it. I have decided to spend at least one or two years trying to help these people, and to travel up there on a regular basis to check progress and to identify new needs as time goes on. It is clear to most people that aid agencies and governments are either unable (or unwilling) to coordinate with each other, such that efforts are often disjointed or slow in coming. There is also the danger of duplication or gaps, and there is also a shortfall of something like USD 4 billion in pledges. In saying that, the job of rehabilitation and rebuilding is awesome, especially when you understand the history of Aceh and the problems that include so many different agendas (some hidden and purposely destructive).

Aceh is apic03.jpg minefield, a labyrinth of historic events that makes the tsunami rebuilding even more difficult. That is why I have decided to 'go it alone' although there are a great number of people worldwide who are helping in a similar fashion. I hope this will give the reader a better idea of where I am coming from, and any support, no matter what it is, would be more than appreciated.
A box of kiddies' toys arrived today from Australia - this took about two months to get here but better than not arriving. I also met with the Australian Rotary Club earlier this week and was surprised when they came to my house today. They are also looking to support a project or two and hopefully my one, which is very small in comparison to what they were talking about - just might get on their agenda next month in Sydney. Barry, you may remember we also talked about Mother Theresa in the back streets of India and 'self interest'. Well I guess this project is somewhat similar, although I hope modest. I will enjoy to do it for a year or two. I've almost given up on the golf and women - one too expensive and the other too time-consuming - you can work out which applies to which.

7 April 2005

Back from Aceh yesterday. This is a brief write-up on the trip – hope it's not too long but many things to do.

This trip to Banda Aceh and to Lhoknga in particular got off to a big bang to say the very least. An earthquake of 8.2 on the Richter scale shook the living daylights out of my rather poor standard hotel in Banda Aceh at just after 11pm. Most hotels in the city were full, but I was not sure of the camp site at Lhoknga because refugees were apparently being moved from tents into wooden barracks – so at least this hotel was a roof over my head. When the quake occurred I don't believe I was alone in thinking that the building would collapse. Instantly the lights went out and we were plunged into total darkness. First instinct was to get out, but then my computer had years of work on it and I was carrying a fair amount of money for the refugees.

I grabbed the computer and the money and staggered to the door, joining other hotel guests who tried to run down the corridor in some kind of disorganized fashion. I nearly fell down the stairs as another sudden jolt threw me to the right just as I was about to take my first stair downwards. People fell on top of each other, but eventually we descended the three floors and out to the safety of the road. Banda Aceh was more than frightened and within minutes the roads were jammed pack full of cars, motorcycles and people fleeing to higher ground. This quake that lasted for about two minutes was well big enough for a tsunami – somebody somewhere was going to be in deep trouble. Later on this turned out to be the Indonesian island of Nias.

That aside, the purpose of this trip was to establish some firm projects to sponsor, and to achieve that in these conditions would only cause one major problem – who to help first? After the hotel episode I decided to travel to Krueng Raya, a place not so badly affected by the tsunami. Their wave was only about 3 metres in height and had penetrated the land for less than a kilometre. As a comparison, the tsunami at Lhoknga (only a few kilometres away) was just over 10 metres in height and was totally devastating. At least Krueng Raya was recognizable from my memories of a few years ago, but anyone close to the sea on December 26 would have been in deep trouble. I stayed overnight at a tent site that seemed to be run by some American Christians.

They were sponsoring/supporting a clinic and appeared to have all comforts imaginable in comparison to other campsites I had visited or stayed at. A sit-down toilet, a real bath, fully tiled bathroom and a GPS satellite phone that cost USD 2,000 just to repair. I noticed mattresses in some of the tents but mine unfortunately was without and subsequently I hardly slept at all that night. The tent was small and the bed they called a cot – small again and most uncomfortable. In the morning I walked about 15 kilometres of the beach to inspect wave damage at impact. Little was left undamaged but many buildings remained, whereas in Lhoknga it was total wipe-out.
I guess a three metre tsunami does not carry anywhere near the force of the bigger waves. Tsunamis forge a pathway of utter destruction such that afterwards you can clearly track every feature of their route. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to actually visualize the horrific scene – the tell-tale marks on cliffs and surviving walls, the scarred and flattened landscapes and many other indicators that complete the picture of death and destruction. What is clear to see was the lack of natural protection to this coastline, such that now you can see the ocean whereas before this was impossible – the end product is a landscape that is now a flattened graveyard.

On my return to Lhoknga on the back of the Ing motorbike (Ing an old and trusted friend) it started to rain. I had already noticed the threatening dark black clouds coming over the mountains when all of a sudden the heavens opened. The rain felt like gravel as we sped towards the campsite like two drowned rats. It got worse and the campsite was soon flooded, torrential tropical rain forcing the entire camp to dig deeper drainage ditches to stop the tents from flooding. We have 100 tents on this site and they all virtually touch each other – man, woman and child worked relentlessly. Despite the commendable efforts, the campsite soon resembled a lake resort but fortunately before midnight the rain stopped. I had visions of Ramla (my old cookie from 1992) and myself doing a two-hour-on and two-hour-sleeping shift throughout the night. Somehow, Ramla managed to conjure up two egg-and-chips, bread and Kraft cheese slices and some coffee, but don't ask me how.

Talking of food brings me on to April 4th and the 100 days since the tsunamis struck. The village head and his followers had called earlier to say a feast would be held to remember the dead. It is an Acehnese tradition to hold prayers on day 7, day 11, day 40 and the 100th day. Another part of yesterday was to visit my old place of working – the Lafarge cement works (PT. Semen Andalas). I could possibly write ten thousand words on this subject alone as the tsunamis devastated the factory. Somewhere in the region of 150 to 200 employees were killed and, by the state of the mangled factory, this will surely be an insurance nightmare. There was a team of 35 men working on clearance and other aspects and so I only stayed for an hour or so and then got out of their way.

I photographed the spare kiln section (somewhat modified in shape) being pulled out of the way by the Caterpillar D9L bulldozer. Come to think of it, I believe it was me that ordered that section some years ago when I was the purchasing manager – I wonder if there was a tsunami clause written into the supply contract? Then it was off to the harbour to photograph those weird-shaped tetrapods that are designed to protect the harbour installation and shipping. I'm far from an expert in this area, but the tsunami smashed through one part of the harbour wall and turned the 5,000-ton cement boat (fully loaded) on its side before carrying on its destructive path to the land. However, it does seem that most of the tetrapod wall survived which says a lot for its design – no doubt this will be the subject of further investigation by experts.

Tomorrow we have meetings in the tent to discuss projects and proposals. I already have copies of nine that range from 20 sewing machines for women to make a few thousand school uniforms (cost about USD 2,000) to a small cafι, a chicken incubator, cattle breeding, and small fishing projects for nets, lines, hooks etc. All of the projects are about USD 1,000 each and we will try to support them all. There are 280 people in this campsite and so I left it up to the village chief to decide which projects to put forward first and this to suit our budget of USD 10,000 total. This money was raised from a hash run organized in Medan some weeks ago.

There is a project that I have a personal interest in and therefore reluctant to use this hash money as given to me. It involves a cottage industry using sea shells as decorations in tables and other ways. Over the past ten years many local people collected shells for me to make designs which I gave away to friends and family, but I believe a small company could be formed to do the same kind of thing. Indonesians have a natural talent for design and it would not take them very long to learn and become a lot better than me. Most of my shell collectors (if not all) are dead from the tsunamis and I think it would be nice to dedicate this company to them.

Another project that people might consider is a fishing boat that costs about USD 4,500 and can be made and delivered in a month. That boat (and others) could be named to suit the donor, so there was a type of ownership attached to the project.

It's now nearly midnight and sleep would be nice, but this body bag stuffed with unwanted second-hand clothes is far from comfortable but at least better than the ground. I watched two of the young children washing their hair in the torrential rain and then banging the tent to bring down the torrent of water to wash off the shampoo - for them this is now a normal way of living. I am told that this entire camp does not want to move into the wooden barrack-type accommodations and would prefer to live in the tents for at least a year, and to be honest I don't blame them. The barracks are small and degrading and could have been made bigger and more comfortable with a little more thought and care.

The next thing I knew it was morning and no rain. One tent had collapsed but the ground water had mostly drained away – to me it was fresh but to the Indonesians it was cold, a point I keep forgetting. Today I will go to Lampuuk and beyond, just to see what the tsunamis have down to the remote beaches.

About half the male population of this Lhoknga camp is working on clean-up jobs at Rp 35,000 per day (US$4), and from the extent of the damage this work is likely to go on for 6 months or more. Jobs are difficult to find and some men are just sitting around the campsite drinking coffee and talking, although camp maintenance jobs are done straightaway. It was soon extremely hot and this made me reflect on a number of people in Medan and elsewhere who kept saying that the Acehnese should get back to work as soon as possible. I went along with that in principle, mainly because it would certainly help to focus minds on the future rather than looking backwards to the disaster and the losses. Any kind of salary would also be more than useful.

However, when you look at this in practical terms, it is not so straightforward. Not everyone is young enough or strong enough to work all day in the blistering sun, and then there is the mental aspect of having to cope with the tremendous personal losses. This is in no way a normal-type life, with most people fearing that soon (and this has already begun) foreign aid workers will leave this country and then everything will come to a grinding halt. The promised money (pledges) to help is nowhere in sight, as no one trusts anybody as regards to cash. This country is notorious for corruption with most officials unable to resist the opportunity to fill their pockets.

I am not at all happy with all the UN and other aid organizations that seem to spend an awful lot of money on their own administration, large cars and comfort in the cities like Banda Aceh and Medan – you don't see many of them walking round the camp sites or living there. Rates for hotels and rented property have gone through the roof, and the money to pay those bills all comes from Joe Bloggs on the street and goes into the pockets of a few. Local people can't afford these rates and are therefore squeezed out of the equation. The restaurants in Medan have been full of aid workers enjoying good food at prices that would keep Acehnese families (what's left of them) going for weeks – the hotels are also full of such people. Sure, there are some aid workers doing a lot of good work, but it is rather inappropriate for many to spend so much money on themselves. One night at a restaurant would no doubt support at least two projects, but few of those people are close enough to the ground to see what really needs to be done. This is not a gripe, it just happens to be a fact, and someone ought to re-evaluate what people are doing for the cost of having them there.

Lampuuk was a complete disaster. Only the mosque remained standing and this because of its architectural design rather than an act of a God. I went looking for a friend who I had not seen for six years and again struggled to find my bearings in a landscape that was totally altered by the tsunami. This was a fairly remote area close to the mountain but I could clearly see that the few houses that once were, were now just foundations. I found my friend by chance and his news of losing his wife and five children came as no surprise. He was busy rebuilding his fence around the foundation and after 15 minutes of talking we said goodbye. He only speaks Acehnese with a sprinkling of Bahasa Indonesian – and what do you say to a man who has lost everything? He needs bricks and a tin roof and other building materials – but he is far from alone in that aspect. He doesn't even have photographs of his family – all was lost to the wave.

On the way back to the motorbike I was stopped by another man who I didn't know. He looked like he had been to hell and never returned. He beckoned me to sit and so I listened to his tale which was in Acehnese and therefore I understood little of his words. There was in fact no need of this, as his eyes told the story, and as he spoke so he dug into the ground and scooped out handfuls of sand that he deposited around himself. The holes got deeper until after 15 minutes he stopped talking. We shook hands and I left him sitting there – this man was in deep trauma and in need of help – to be honest he frightened me because of his intensity and obvious desperation.

I returned to the camp and some of the men sat with me and we talked of politics, the future, social problems and the price of tuna fish. Children gathered and listened as the grown ups talked of the tsunami, the booming noises and then the actual sound of the wave as it came closer and closer. The men left and then the children began to mimic the effects of an earthquake, jumping up and down on their chairs and swaying to and fro as they laughed at each other's efforts. Then one child spun his arms around in circles pretending he was a tsunami wave and then the others made booming noises and competed for the best impression. They laughed and then scattered as a mother came along and shooed them away. With all projects written up, the afternoon was free and I decided to tie up with Alia (an Indonesian girl who has been in America for the past few years). She is also trying to help with local projects and so perhaps it is a good idea that we work together. The fact that she is good-looking has nothing at all to do with this decision – honest?

Now Alia has a clapped-out Kijang that actually works and so we visited two or three of the barracks and campsites to get the women into this sewing machine project. We have visions of making this grow and will pay the ladies half-salaries (Rp 37,500 per day) until they have made 50 school uniforms and then they can own the sewing machine themselves.

The 100-day remembrance feast was a buffalo (lumbu) and was cooked in a huge pot that was at least six-foot diameter and three feet deep. It was an acquired taste and my first mouthful forced me to dive for the cold water. That night there were traditional Acehnese songs that echoed out into the darkness, strong words that reflected a proud race of people determined to come through another community disaster. The sound of their voices was indeed a moving experience – it was if the dead were speaking and telling the survivors to go on. For me the 100 days also reflected a milestone – respect shown to their dead and yet time was moving forward and so must the survivors.
Tomorrow I return to Medan to rest for a week or so. Putra, the cookie's 12 year-old son, fanned my peeling back with his school book for an hour before sleeping. Only five hours earlier he had laid in the tent with a fever with one of those surgical wipes over his forehead. I needed the coolness as I was beginning to smell myself, as the well had run dry that day. Even a bucket of cold water (which is refreshing at that moment) soon evaporates and then the heat of the day brings back the sweating and so on.

All in all the trip was pretty successful, as many needs had been identified and most of those are pretty simple to remedy if cash is available.

Email 14 April 2005

Things here have turned for the worst, but you get used to disappointments in this rather diverse country. The Chinese (10 man committee) have decided they don't like my Aceh projects as they cannot support anything that is directly focused on individuals. Not only that, their culture demands they don't lose face over the distribution of this cash and supporting individuals would not bring forward the necessary recognition. Of course I was a wee bit angry, especially when one of the committee threw my papers on the table and said this was all KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism).

You have to add to this all the bad historical happenings between the Chinese and the Acehnese and of course all I want to do is for a few people who have lost everything in their lives. Some of the committee failed to pay attention and then I found out that five of the ten were not committee members at all. I was to give a presentation but, after the first five minutes, I decided it would be a waste of time. Ironically, they have been sitting on this money for over two months and the only proposals on the table are mine. This meeting was on Tuesday and so now they have decided to make a final decision on Friday and at that meeting the committee will come up with some other new proposals – I think I'm stuffed and will have to abandon at least half the projects.

A friend of mine (English) was also at the meeting and after a few drinks (we both needed that) he agreed to personally sponsor two of my projects and I will do maybe three. So all was not lost but a few friendships were seriously rocked. There will of course be a few disappointed people up in Aceh but they know the ethnic and cultural problems and will understand the difficulties. Some you win – some you lose – that is life. On a brighter note I have been entertaining three Australians this week - their father died out here not so long ago and I kind-of inherited the acting Australian consulate responsibilities. Everything is now sorted out and I think they go back to Aussie with a far better frame of mind about their father's life out here and of Medan. Will probably return to Aceh next week and start again on something else – can't let the Chinese put us down.

16 April 2005

It has now been three months since the giant tsunamis hit the Acehnese coastline and for many people their situation is hardly a lot better. In saying that, the logistics of righting such a catastrophic disaster are unquestionably mind-boggling but nonetheless people are still sitting around in tents and getting pretty damn bored with their lives. One of the alternatives would be the wooden barrack-type accommodations that in many ways are inadequate, humiliating and will be just as soul-destroying – thus many would prefer to stay in the tents. At the top of the list of problems would be the broken families, the remnants of human life that was spared on 26th December 2004. You can clearly see the disjointed communities as they huddle together in the various campsites, each and every one of them a victim of the giant waves – their lives destroyed.

As if Aceh isn't enough, there has now been the shattering earthquake that devastated parts of the Island of Nias and elsewhere, plus by mid-April there were 11 volcanoes in Indonesia under serious surveillance - this includes 'Anak Krakatau' (the child of the infamous Krakatau that blew itself apart in 1883). That eruption produced giant tsunamis that took the lives of about 35,000 people – how many would that have been today? Those 11 volcanoes are among at least 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia that are part of the Pacific 'Ring of Fire' – a series of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Ocean and taking in the Americas, Japan, South-east Asia and New Zealand.

In the background (but still of great importance) are the talks going on between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government in Helsinki. With something like half a million people losing their homes in the tsunami, is it little wonder that the vast majority of them simply want peace in Aceh and an end to the current hostilities and devastating problems? Families have been torn apart, decimated and loved ones taken away forever and, in being so, it is a situation that most of us cannot even comprehend – and yet it is reality. At the end of the day we are all left with the supposed good will of the many charitable organizations and NGO's that will fight their corners for the good of humanity. Perhaps I am a little naive and a somewhat boring sceptic when it comes to the so-called 'do gooders', but on the ground there does appear to be a number of bad agendas that perhaps are more focused on entrenching themselves and their ideas into a culture that is totally different and opposite to theirs.

Understandably, money talks in a country where poverty reigns, and in such circumstances people will go down any avenue that offers them a better life. These are the situations that exist at the grass roots – a place where most politicians and entrepreneurs care little – a sad fact of life, despite the many fine speeches in the various parliaments. Surely it is time for this world to come to terms with, and to totally reject, what we have been brainwashed into accepting – and this is a spiel of humanitarian rhetoric that is purely based on getting votes, and yet in reality is only based on some future business opportunity.

Certain events here have all gone down such avenues, a greedy bunch of individuals who hold the right credentials and the necessary power to ensure that this disaster will produce for them a profit. The United Nations is also under a lot of pressure to reveal the many failures within its organization – and of course there are many. The so-called charity organizations are similar, in as much that over 40% of donated money is siphoned off to accommodate inflated administration costs to a bunch of people who live very nicely off the proceeds. Of course there are a few 'do gooders' in those organizations, but in reality they are few and far between, and most of them hold little influence over the decision making.

“Get real!” is a statement often made to me by those that are a part of the system. “Get lost!” is the reply. I am one of many who are fighting a battle against this materialistic and capitalistic system and have to admit that often this cause looks more than hopeless. In living with the homeless, the destitute and the people who have lost everything in their lives, you begin to realize that there but for the Grace of God go I. We are all a victim of our circumstances and in Aceh (and in other regions of the world) exist thousands of people who through no fault of their own now face a life which we could not imagine – and most of them still remain in tents. The most generous outgoings (which was incredible) from the world at large is not reaching the people who really need it – but then they are just ordinary people and perhaps of no great significance to the economy.

It's been a bad week in many ways and my thanks to the Jakarta Post for printing certain information about this sad situation. Complex for sure – but a lot can still be done to rectify the many wrongs.

Email 30 April 2005

Quote by Erskine Bowles, deputy United Nations special envoy for tsunami recovery : “When you are on the ground you can see the devastation which is hard to comprehend, but then the good part happens – you meet the Acehnese people, and they are the strongest people I have ever met in my life.”

Part of the challenge is to get more victims back in a job, but as one villager said: “I want to work again and for this I need a barrow and a shovel, but who will help me?” Although that statement has some truth in it, the fact does remain that there are very few worthwhile jobs for local people, and, of course, there are good reasons for that. Erskine Bowles was right when he said you have to see it with your own eyes to even begin to understand the human problems.

The thing is this – have we the time and the inclination to do something about it? Aid agencies like the UN's World Food Program say that providing jobs is a top priority and they hope there will be avenues targeted on livelihoods under the Indonesian government blueprint. Vice-president Joseph Kalla presented that 12-volume blue print to Acehnese community leaders on Saturday 26th March and said that the government would consult the Acehnese people before incorporating this blueprint. That document covers the rebuilding of society and livelihoods, restoring the economy, rebuilding the infrastructure and restoring the capacity of local institutions – but it is a five year plan. Some 220,000 people are either dead or missing (the missing are presumed dead) and hundreds of thousands of survivors are now homeless.

It would be easy to point the finger of blame at various institutions/governments and to say they are dragging their feet, but to do this you would need to know the whole picture – and not too many people know that. A lot has already been done, especially initially and in the following two months, but there appears to be a lull as the disaster moves out of emergency mode and into reconstruction/rebuilding. Too many cooks spring to mind, as there are an enormous amount of NGO's who all have their own agendas, some of which may not gel with the recently disclosed Indonesian government blueprint. There is a real possibility (because of past bad feelings between the Acehnese, Jakarta and others within this country) that local people will see foreign donors and organizations as a far better bet than relying on the Indonesian government.

The camp I was at the other week at Krueng Raya (some 50 kilometres northeast of Banda Aceh) has just experienced a shooting that may have involved the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). I say 'may' as the motive for the killing of a young Banda Aceh student and a local boy is unknown - as is often the case. When you talk to local people, many of them will not commit themselves to open discussion for fear of repercussions. The talks that are continuing in Helsinki are often viewed as worthless, as many Acehnese will privately admit that there are bad GAM people but they hate the Indonesian military far more. The fear is that when the outside world and the foreigners leave this province, then things will go back to normal – which was always total domination by the Indonesian military. More than 12,000 lives have been lost in this 30-year old internal conflict and many of those have been innocent civilians.

In the sweltering heat of the camps there is a general reluctance to talk of peace, as little trust (if any) exists between Aceh and Jakarta - and there are good reasons why that is so. You cannot help but become involved in this conflict, because the future of Aceh in this recent reconstruction blueprint will only be a part of the solution. What the province clearly illustrates is the contrast between the very best and the very worst of people. Trying to rebuild a life, after this enormous wave has destroyed everything you ever owned, is bad enough but to have a life-threatening internal struggle going on at the same time does little for the spirit of recovery. Nevertheless, rebuilding has commenced and in many small ways that is a Godsend. There is another aspect that needs to be watched and that could have a very bad influence on the province. With the huge influx of foreigners into Aceh, a lot of those being Americans working down the west coast, the Acehnese perception of Uncle Sam is pretty good and not at all like a lot of Indonesians have been led to believe.

On the other hand, the militant side of Islam from Java has infiltrated Aceh and this has happened with some help from the Indonesian military. Initially the Laskar Jihad type of people were finding and burying the dead in Banda Aceh, but since then they have been busier with their pamphlets and their religious propaganda. There are a number of likely reasons why militant Islam has parked itself in Aceh and one of those could be to sow radical ideologies amongst the local people. They will most likely infiltrate mosques and even local NGO's and anywhere else they consider their words may be listened to. There is an outside possibility that they would fight against the Free Aceh movement (GAM) as the rebels' agenda is clearly ethno-nationalistic – something that is deplored by radical Muslims. I doubt whether this will happen as the Helsinki talks continue and, at the moment, they seem to be fairly progressive, although they still haven't discussed the really difficult problems.

Then there are the tsunami funds and, should corruption occur (which is possible), then radical Islam will use this as leverage for Sharia Law and also to discredit the secular Indonesian government. They will also want to counteract the good thinking by the Acehnese of the foreign influences as portrayed by the vast majority of worldwide agencies and NGO's. Then there is the danger that foreign concern and help might fade as time goes on and this would present another opportunity for militant Islam to say 'we told you so' and feed off this failure. But the Acehnese are not stupid and many will see these infiltrators as people who would like to steer the conflict down the lines of religion – few of them want this. GAM in fact call such people 'criminal organizations' and, to be honest, that is not too far away from the truth.

At the moment, the militants are hugely outnumbered by the foreigners/international community and of course the help given to the Acehnese by most countries in the West has been phenomenal and most certainly much appreciated. But these militant people are patient and will sit around just waiting for an opportunity to criticize whatever should go wrong – and corruption is the most likely. The vast majority of the Acehnese also reject the claim of the extremists that Islam is being attacked everywhere in the world and that there is a global war against Muslims.

That apart, it does make me smile when I listen to ex-pats in Medan, who often are so blasι about earthquakes, mainly because they have witnessed one which in fact did little if anything in the way of damage to their life. 'Been there and got the t-shirt' was one remark and yet how little they know. Even those eruptions that do not take the lives of people can still have a devastating effect on people and their livelihoods. Lava and ash spewing over kilometres of land knock out tea and other plantations, pollute the atmosphere, and destroy crops and other livelihoods. They put people into fear and send them running to safer areas, disrupting normal lives and incomes.

Earthquakes are frightening and often come out the blue – I really wish people would try to understand just how devastating they can be. There are volcanoes here that are now on level 3 alert, and that is only one level below the highest alert. I have been there and witnessed the fear, the absolute panic as people understandably run for high ground, the memory of the tsunamis still fresh in their minds. You cannot imagine what it is like until you see the destruction that these giant waves can cause and the human suffering that follows. Let no man ever say that he has witnessed such a thing and came out of it unaffected, for he is a fool.

The ceaseless aftershocks (hundreds of them) are a constant reminder that Mother Nature has more in store for the human race. The volcanologists have a thankless task, for their knowledge is limited and their predictions often the subject of a toss of the coin. This earth has its own passage and future, and if ever the really big one comes along, we will all have just a few seconds to absorb this awesome power before we become history. Volcanic activity in Indonesia is now seriously challenging the almost daily carnage that comes out of Baghdad - a chain of eruptions that is spreading across Java and into Sulawesi. 'Where next?' is the question and what magnitude will it be.

A second one on April 16 close to Nias Island of 6.1 on the Richter scale fortunately caused no damage and only lasted for 10 seconds. This one hit at midnight and caused some cracks to buildings, and was felt in Padang and Medan in Sumatra. But who will have the nerve to predict what is coming next and when – no one. After living here for 15 years now, this is the first time ever that my keys to the front door are left in the keyhole, as the difference between life and death could well be a matter of seconds. Earthquakes often plunge you into darkness as power lines are immediately hit, and in the dark you panic and stagger because in those frightening moments your very life is not in your hands – for it belongs to Mother Nature.

On a brighter note, the planting of mangrove forests has begun at Ule Lheue where the British aid organization Oxfam has supplied 20,000 seedlings each 40 cm long. Local people are planting them close to the beach and get paid Rp 200 per seedling. The same thing is happening further along the coast at Krueng Raya (Lamnga village). The frail seedlings need to be tied to a stake to prevent them from being washed out to sea. It is a job that is long overdue and of course it is easy to look back and criticize. To see people kneeling in the hot sun (despite the early morning start) is a stark reminder that we have failed to understand the very basics of protecting the human race against nature – and this because there is no place for that in the materialistic world. We react with great compassion to all these human tragedies but unfortunately have no time at all for the prevention of them – for there is no money in the protection of human life.

I sat in a bar in Medan the other night and heard one person say how he despised the so-called 'do gooders', the people who preach about the good things in life that relate to helping others, when in fact it was the capitalistic thinking that provides everyone with an opportunity to improve their lives. I took another beer and said nothing. Today I met up with Leanne, an old friend and the Indonesian wife of the Australian consulate, who tomorrow will visit Nias Island on her own for two weeks. She has no plan to talk of, but she has a rucksack and a determination to go out there and find something good to do. She has already spent three weeks in Calang on the west coast of Aceh, an area of total devastation where life has been torn apart and thrown back at people who cannot possibly cope with such losses.

There is one thing I will say about Indonesians and that is they are a very compassionate race of people who have this wonderful gift of being able to console and to share the distress of their own people – and they do this with great feeling. I've just spent the last few hours talking to a man from Jakarta (an ex-pat who is pulled down the avenue of profit) and it was interesting because every member of his team in the capital has never ever set foot on Acehnese soil – and never will. He was desperate, mainly because his project was likely to be turned down by the Indonesian government because the right pockets had not been lined. The Indonesian Military had been paid and also the police in their efforts to build 60,000 houses at Rp 28 million each – a style of house that has no reflection at all to do with what the Acehnese people actually want. Does this matter – in an environment that has been totally destroyed? What is it with these organizations that pretend to understand a natural disaster which is really of no interest whatsoever to their real agenda?

Aceh is moving into a period of time that will generate total conflict with what to do for the benefit of the people – and I look forward to that conflict. To really understand what is likely to happen, one must at least have some idea about the history of the place and indeed the interested parties. That opens a can of worms, of which the western world is a large part. To try and understand the wider picture of Aceh is not really too difficult if you are prepared to give yourself to true humanitarian concerns. The problem lies with the fact that money must be made from this situation – and the more the merrier. My friend in Jakarta is almost at a stage of total desperation because he knows that others more powerful have paid more money to ensure that whatever they want WILL HAPPEN. Let's not pretend and think that the Indonesian government is any worse than the ex-pat organizations that are trying to influence the outcome in Aceh – it is all down to ideology and financial opportunity.

Corruption, which is what this country is all about, remains at the top of the agenda as International Audit institutions join the bandwagon of watchdog organizations that are charged with the task of monitoring the enormous reconstruction funds. You could be accused of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea when it comes to WHO should decide what is done and what is not done. This is of course Indonesia and they (the government) will want to ensure that outside influences are not dominant or overwhelmingly influential. On the other hand the West will claim that their way of life and their democracy is the way forward – perhaps look at Vietnam in today's world and make a judgement on who is right and who is wrong?

I do believe that Aceh is moving into a period of time when decision-making will be difficult and confrontational – the clash between the Acehnese people, the Indonesian government and the outside world is indeed a can of worms. Does it really (truly) matter? – this depends on where you are coming from and where you want to finish up. But, in saying that, where do the people fit into that thinking? Sometimes it is better to step away from the political pressures and the business environment, so to see the wood from the trees – but here in Indonesia if you do that, then you will need a chain saw, so to become a part of the massive illegal logging organizations that daily rape the environment. Sorry to end on a bad note – but difficult out here at the moment to find a ray of hope.

Email 13 May 2005

An interesting article was printed in the Jakarta Post today (unlucky for some Friday 13th May). It claimed that an International charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), was returning huge amounts of tsunami money to the original donors as it had received more than it could use. The charity itself denied this. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the charity had sent out more than 4,000 letters telling donors it could not use their money for tsunami victims, and was therefore proposing to refund them if the donors did not want their money channelled into other causes. The newspaper said the charity had 172 requests for refunds totalling 93,000 Australian dollars (US$ 72,540) while about 1,700 donors specified other appeals and the rest left the matter up to the charity's discretion. A total of 105 million Euros (US$ 134 million) were collected by the 19 sections of the association across the world – so said the Paris-based charity.

By the end of March 2005, US$ 20.5 million had been spent on operations in the region and total spending should reach more than US$ 28 million for 2005 – so said the Paris-based charity. MSF want to redirect the 'gifts' that it is unable to use in Southeast Asia towards 'forgotten' crises, such as those ravaging the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur in Sudan, Niger, or AIDS victims in poor countries – so said the Paris-based charity. They went on to say that less than 1 per cent of the amount collected (920,000 Euros) has had to be paid back.

In Aceh, with 129,000 confirmed dead, the recently appointed head of the agency overseeing the province reconstruction said that reconstruction is close to zero because of red tape.

Would someone please tell me why it is that this charity can make such a decision when in fact the tsunami victims in Aceh have not progressed at all since the 26th December 2004? The article did not say why the charity was unable to spend this donated money on tsunami victims; neither did it say whether the charity had any idea at all about the situation in Indonesia. Although I would go along with the need to support other world tragedies, it is extremely disappointing when a charity ducks out of the intended purpose for no given reason at all. I wonder what the people in the campsites would think about this, and I wonder who it was that made the decision to pull the plug.

This is following two more trips to Banda Aceh and recent local meetings. We are at least beginning to focus on one worthwhile project, as opposed to the many we had on board in the early days.

There is a meeting at Chatsworth in England soon that is a reunion of all the ex-pats that were in Aceh over the years and hopefully this will generate some funds. I think what we have now is the right people, the right idea, a 'Heath Robinson' set-up but a willingness to push forward. Anyway, the following is a bit of a write-up on what we are thinking about. After many discussions among a number of very good people who have a personal interest in Aceh, there is an area that is likely forgotten in the wake of the entire reconstruction of Aceh province.

We have looked at individuals in the various campsites and the great loss that they have personally suffered, in the way of family losses and of livelihoods that will be difficult to restart. Each and every case carries great merit for support – but here we are talking of thousands of people. Available finance to our small operation will not be able to take care of all these people and therefore it becomes difficult to select who should be helped. It also causes local jealousies and bad feeling which is understandable in these circumstances.

There is of course the US$ 4.5 billion available and that will be spent on a huge amount of projects over the next five years. Hopefully, the spending of this money will be focused on two things – one would be the humanitarian reconstruction of Aceh (the people/community building and livelihoods) and the other will be the profit orientated schemes that concentrate on the building of schools, houses, roads and whatever else is deemed necessary. I don't wish to get too far down that particular avenue, as I believe we have a few people on the ground that can and will make a difference to the lives of those that have lost limbs in this tsunami disaster.

You really need to be here to understand that entire villages were lifted by the wave and then smashed against a mountain, and in doing so, most perished. As an example, Leupung village was once a community of 12,000 and is now 731, and Lhoknga has 860 survivors out of over 4,000 people. Some of those survivors are without a leg or arms. The majority of large organizations seem to spend an amount of time competing against each other for the supply of artificial limbs (one presumes that is fairly big business) and also rehabilitation – both aspects extremely important. We feel that what is missing is the long-term commitment to people who (through no fault of their own) are severely handicapped. Finding employment for these people may not be easy, but with care and a small team concentrating on this requirement, then jobs can be found and lives made better – long term.

I have a friend in Australia who is trying to gather up a number of local business people who in turn would be prepared to sponsor individuals who are handicapped – the cost to each sponsor would be minimum R 100,000 per week (Australian dollars approx 15 or US $11 or UK £6). This money would go directly to the families of handicapped people on (let's say) a monthly basis and would buy essentials like food and schooling fees. It may be difficult as I said earlier to find jobs for these people, at least for a while – perhaps not until the major rebuilding projects get started.

With that underway, jobs will come along, but we need a small team of people fighting for the handicapped. Initially, setting up an office in Banda Aceh will only cost Rp14 million (US $150) and we have that in our funds already. What concerns us is the continuation of this project, as wages will need to be paid and an office maintained. Finding all these handicapped people will take a while and we will need reliable transport for this.

We have already set up this small team that will consist of less than ten people, a computer base, a one-room office as a starter, and a reasonable number of donors. The idea is not to compete with the big organizations but to complement them in an area that is often pushed to the side and eventually forgotten. If any one is interested in supporting this proposal, then I would be happy to hear from them. Another good thing is that the state of emergency is now being lifted in Aceh by the Indonesian government and so travelling within Aceh will hopefully become easier and safer - time will tell.

Email 25 June 2005

Dear Barry and Margaret. Thanks for your recent communications and news about your travels and website adventures – sounds really good. Also sorry for delay in replying. Not a lot to report as regards Aceh and reconstruction as virtually nothing has happened for months. They tell me it is similar in Sri Lanka. Reports are unfortunately conflicting and confusing, and co-ordination seems to be a word that doesn't exist in reality. Frustrations grow as the people watch the authorities hold meeting after meeting, and I suspect that an awful lot of money is being wasted on aid workers facilities, such as rented houses, expensive cars and wages.

When you speak to the Indonesians they often say that the expatriates are on a kind of holiday in Aceh, swimming daily in the ocean and saying what a wonderful country this is and what lovely people. How much of that is true is hard to gauge – but I have seen it in a number of places. I've done a letter to the Jakarta Post on this particular subject. For example, why very expensive Land Cruisers and such like vehicles are considered necessary in a region that hardly has any decent roads is beyond me – status and pomp have no real place in the city of the dead. That aside, the foot-dragging is the result of a number of factors.

We know and try to understand the rebel GAM problem which seems to hover over the area and won't go away. I actually feel a lot safer in Aceh today than I did before the war broke out, as in those times a lot of extremely unpleasant events were commonplace. The talks in Helsinki (and this depends on which report you read) seem to have reached a point that was more than predictable. They have covered the easier aspects, but now the thorny bits need to be discussed. Sorry to drag this political aspect into the tsunami report, but without peace, nothing will go forward. In the meantime, NGO's must be getting frustrated as they cannot perform with their plans until they get final approval from the Indonesians.

Many do not want to give the donated money to the Indonesian authorities as corruption is rampant and on-going and likely incurable. Some have gone ahead without such approval, and this (as one aid worker said to me) was better than doing nothing. That perhaps is debatable, as for example, one organization (maybe more than one) have financed the building of fishing boats, and these you can see being built along the roadside. Now the chief UN boat expert (he arrived in Sumatra this week – and why so late in the day) tells the high-level audience that the boats are being made by cowboys and will sink in no time. Now if he is right, then a lot of money has gone down the drain.

Another country sent hundreds of fibre-glass boats, but these also in heavy seas will flip over because they are of the wrong design and of the wrong material. A nice and kind gesture, but also a death trap. As a matter of interest, when the Kobi earthquake occurred, the Japanese government produced and implemented their rebuilding blue print in less than a week – in Aceh it is now nearly six months since the quake/tsunami, and still no positive action. Perhaps all this is trying to tell us that as human beings we are simply unable to cope with a disaster of this magnitude in an area that was already plagued with historic problems.

The same would apply to Sri Lanka, although very recently some kind of peace pact has occurred. Perhaps it would be easy to sit back and point fingers at the people who are obviously obstructing or abusing this situation, but that is of no use at all to the people who are still sitting and sleeping under canvas. Somebody somewhere needs to get their finger out.

Let me give you an example of inflated prices. In Medan, I pay Rp15 million per year for my rented house which has two bedrooms (one on-suite), two hot showers, a modern washing machine and is fully furnished. In Banda Aceh, one of the NGO's that put me up for two nights paid Rp240 million rent per year for their house. There are examples of houses that are costing three times this amount. Hotel rooms (if you can get one) cost about three times the going rate in far better hotels in Medan.

The thing is this:

1) Where is that money coming from?

2) Who is allowing local people to extort unbelievable amounts of money out of a truly tragic disaster – that is almost worse than criminal?

3) What are the total administrative costs of the people from aid and NGO concerns, and what have they got to show in the way of reconstruction that will in any way justify that expenditure?

My next trip is likely to be mid July.

I have just received your latest message and will send you some more details later. I have no problems with you sending out what I say, mainly because I do feel a lot of things need to dragged out into the open. I hope you will also appreciate that getting reliable facts and figures out of this fiasco - is not easy. People refuse to comment, and this mainly (I think) because of their obvious failure. There are obviously good guys - but try to tell that to the people in the tents!

Email 29 June 2005

Dear Barry and Margaret – a few more lines about Aceh. Every now and then we all need a jolt, but I hope such an awakening call does not come in the shape and form of another gigantic earthquake. The seismologists seem convinced there will be one under the islands just off the West Sumatran coast, and that could be close to 9 on the Richter scale. If they are right, then a tsunami is also likely about 10 to 15 minutes after the initial quake. The jolt I refer to is the one necessary to get this reconstruction on the move. I don't mind admitting that I am hugely critical to a state of anger as regards this point, as I believe some people associated with the rebuilding have either forgotten, fallen asleep, never saw the initial impact disaster, or have simply lost focus on the thousands of human tragedies that are scattered all the way down the Acehnese west coast.

I notice people ignoring me now as I'm likely to explode with the frustration. Not many of the readers of this report will know of a small place called Ulee Lheue that is only a few minutes away from Banda Aceh. Back in January this year I stood on the furthest land point and faced the Indian Ocean, and then turned around and stared at the land. What I saw was massive destruction that I found horrifying and almost unbelievable. Four kilometers of smashed houses that are now mostly foundations, tons of debris, and buried beneath must have been thousands of bodies.

That scene is no different today nearly six months on. I will admit that such devastation is mind-boggling if you were to be faced with the responsibility for clearance and rebuilding, plus the fact that the whole area is open to the sea and to another tsunami. Perhaps there lies the dilemma. The realities may be that Ulee Lheue will be no more, and the whole area will be turned into an uninhabited landscaped buffer zone. That may also apply to some of the many villages that once thrived along the west coast – and I can see the logic and thinking behind that.

There was one village that disappeared in its entirety. The wave left the area absolutely clean as if there had never been anyone there in the first place – needless to say that survivors were few and far between. I do feel that many of these aid workers who are still here today should visit Ulee Lheue once a week as a reminder of what this tragedy is all about. There are many of them in Medan where I live and the hotels are doing very nicely – thank you tsunami. That is no doubt unavoidable, but the Traders restaurant (not cheap) has become known by the locals as the UN restaurant as it is often frequented by the various aid workers. Now they drink and eat pretty well, and that bill may well be paid by the individuals out of their own pockets, but their wages (that puts the money in their pockets in the first place) comes out of the donated money.

Rumours and bar talk around the city says very little good about many of these foreigners – perhaps this is another example of how the rich are getter richer (hotel and restaurant owners) and the poor stay in the tents. One of the difficulties is trying to keep track of what is happening and what is not – and why. To do that, you would have to research the various websites for 24 hours a day, and for every day until the end of time. People do not have that time, or for that matter the inclination, and so like most of us we look for tangible improvements – and currently that is stagnation and frustrations.

There is also little doubt that most people involved with the reconstruction could stand up and argue their case as regards to the lack of progress. Blaming others would probably top the list, and bureaucracy would come a close second. People like myself who scratch around at the grass roots trying to do something with zero resources and finance, look in amazement at the much publicized list of country/organization donors. Now you could be awfully cynical when reviewing such a list if you were to relate the obvious generosity into hard political facts.

There are images to improve, hidden agendas to feed and a whole host of other factors that do not have a huge bearing on the Acehnese people under canvas. If you want such a list then one exists that is called the 'stingy' list on http//blog.simmins.org There are others on an official basis if you have time to investigate. You can of course look at figures in a number of ways, most people thinking that the Americans with US$857 million from its government and US$1, 480 million from private donators are by far the most generous. But, if you put the aid on a per-capita basis then the Norwegians gave the most, with combined governmental and private donations amounting to USD59 per head. This was seven times more than the Americans and ten times more than the Japanese. But then comes the crunch as regards to the quality of the aid – in other words the percentage of the amount that will be focused on the victims as opposed to the percentage focused on donor interests.

Sort that one out and then you begin to see a truer picture of what's behind all the figures. In this respect, the head of Aid Watch in Australia said that most of Canberra's $A738.9 million will flow back to Australian companies and contractors – not sure he's right on that but some no doubt will. I read one report that said the Americans had taken back $US400 million out of their $US857 million to cover the costs of US Mercy and other rescue/medical facilities/equipment that had already been a part of the initial humanitarian phase. Japan wants a permanent seat on the Security Council and the Americans desperately want to show the world they are not just six-gun, shoot from the hip merchants. To me, one the strangest set of figures belongs to China. Their government donated $US83 million and the people (private) just over one million dollars. The private figure is so low it is hardly believable for a country with over 1.4 billion people. Nevertheless, with nearly $US7 billion from all the various governments and 4.4 billion from the private sector, not much in real terms has reached the tent dwellers.

It would help people to understand what life is like in Aceh if they visited a camp site, or the next stage up which are the wooden barrack-type accommodations. For this, you need to look pre-tsunami at how people lived before the wave. Many were unemployed and lived in fairly squalid conditions – but okay and an accepted way of life if you are poor. Accommodation was mainly flimsy which is why the wave destroyed everything.

When they moved into tents, for some this was better than before, but privacy and toilet facilities are not good. Even so, there is a sense of community and living among them I find a happy environment that is fed and surviving. The wooden barracks, which are meant to be an improvement on tents, are a rather debatable subject. For example, 60 Acehnese are squeezed into a single barrack with about three families living in one room. They are of course a temporary affair, but with reconstruction virtually at a standstill, morale has become low. If I had a choice then I would live in the tent, especially as the surrounding is more tranquil and privacy a little bit better.

Boredom sets in pretty quickly as something like 70 per cent of industry (jobs) went with the tsunami. There are far more men survivors than women and so the whole community is unbalanced and thus vulnerable to incidents. Some get jobs within the aid agencies, but these only go to the educated ones – not the poor. Food is on ration and consists of rice, instant noodles and canned sardines – hardly the best of nutrition – but okay. The vegetable markets are up and running and have been for months but you need to barter the price down. There are no diseases, which is a credit to the World Health Organization and the cleanliness of the Acehnese.

The vast majority of people have come to terms with the situation and their earlier tsunami traumas, but a few are understandably struggling. Children are going to school and the attitude/behaviour of the kids is refreshing and brilliant. There is electricity now and so electric fans can be used – I did see one fridge which was a donation. All in all it is okay and livable – but then the Acehnese are well accustomed to a hard way of life and expect very little from it. For me the biggest problem is where to build the new houses, as another tsunami is forecast. The grass roots mentality is so understandable and yet relocation so sensible. When you watch women sweeping their foundation of the house that was, your heart goes out to them, and yet the ocean is staring right at you.

Email 18 July 2005

As there appears to be little action at this moment in time, I have gone back through my notes to the early days, just after the tsunami struck.

Obviously, accurate information was difficult to get at a time when, for example, fuel for generators was being hand-carried from Banda Aceh to the villages - a journey of at least two days. The counting of survivors was necessary to establish estimation of loss, and in this respect 24 of the 28 villages in Lhoong sub-district had been completely destroyed. Coastal roads were severely damaged and most bridges had been destroyed or severely damaged.

People naturally returned to be as close as they could to their grass roots, despite the fact that nothing remained. Camps were set up and village heads and settlement leaders began to count the survivors. It was obvious then that more women and children were killed than men. Women comprised about 40%, children below 5 years of age about 8%, and just looking at 5 of the Lhoong villages which pre-tsunami had a population of nearly 12,000, figures show that 4,599 were confirmed dead, 6,196 survived and 1,017 were still missing. Obviously, that varied all the way along the west coast of Aceh, with many villages suffering worse.

Two priorities were to clean wells and to install sanitation facilities, accepting that housing and feeding were the most obvious needs. Medical facilities were initially non-existent but soon that was to change dramatically. Those who took part in the initial rescue and humanitarian exercise did a wonderful job under extremely difficult circumstances - it was an exercise that clearly showed the compassion of people. Food was distributed according to the number of people in each tent settlement. Rice was rationed to 300 gm per person per day along with 2 spoons of milk powder, half a packet of Indomie and 2 spoons of cooking oil. Not a very balanced or nutritious diet, but people survived on it.

About 70% of the farmland was inundated by saltwater, thus productivity was severely affected. Topsoil had been swept away and the land was covered in mud and debris. When the local market first opened, the prices were up by 30% and you could only get beans, chillies, peppers, onions and mangoes. At one stage, the displaced people were sheltering/living in the few buildings that remained, with 20 families sharing cubicles of about 60 sq m at the local market. In this Lhoong area, 22 of the 30 schools were destroyed, and the plan was that the 8 surviving schools would reopen on January 24th.

A measles vaccination campaign was initiated by UNICEF, in conjunction with the Indonesian Ministry of Health, for all children aged 6 months to 15 years, plus vitamin A tablets as necessary. Latrines were a high priority, as was soap. Another village area, namely Lho Kruet, suffered a loss of 78% of their population. The area consists of 5 villages that had a pre-tsunami population of 4,940 people. Only 1,025 survived but many of those went to the village of Lamno, where they could access more services.

Diarrhoea, scabies, respiratory infections and fever were the main health problems. 100% of the houses in Lho Kruet were destroyed and so initially the survivors had temporary shelters of corrugated tin and plastic sheets. There were no medical facilities at all as the only doctor and his 5 nurses were killed in the wave. A health post became the priority of Lho Kruet. Anyone seriously ill would be flown out by helicopter. Some people were walking 24 kilometres to get food from another village. Water purification was also a priority.

It may be of interest to readers to know that the tsunami travelled at least 6 kilometres inland - in some places even more. In doing so, it totally destroyed numerous small villages. This sent the survivors to the hills for safety, which of course meant they were scattered and therefore difficult to locate. Hunger bought them down towards the coast and to other neighbouring villages until eventually a supply line was established. This was the situation at the town of Kreung Sabe, which was completely destroyed. Food was being shipped in from Calang by motorcycle or by boat but the Americans started air drops of supplies that eased the problems considerably.

Five latrines were built, but only one metre deep. All the time the aid was coming, so the people were burying their dead. Over one hundred bodies were found in the lagoon. Food and water was the payment for the burials. All the way along the coast it was the same: the closer you were to the sea, the more deaths. Meulaboh is the largest town along this coast and they had about 32,000 displaced persons. All-in-all along the entire coastline there would be approx 117,000 displaced people.

Early figures showed 33,000 dead with 27,000 already buried. The Spanish Red Cross provided 200,000 litres of water via 9 tankers per day and the Singapore Army surgical team supported the local hospital. A field hospital was set up and run by the French Civil Service. UNICRF co-ordinated the whole program and will provide 50,000 vaccines. The Indonesian Military (TNI) was very active all the way along the west coast.

Each village has its own stories, but to be honest they are much the same as the others. Of one thing I am sure: the Acehnese people have a remarkable resilience to survive. There were little tears that could be seen, but on closer inspection (and living with them in the tents) the women often cry in solitude as they try to come to terms not only with the loss of their children, but with the fact that many let go of their hands in the wave. Of course, there was nothing they could do about that, as the force of the water was enormous and no living soul could fight it.

It is well every now and then to return to the dark days of the wave because, as this world goes on, so people far away understandably forget. As an example of changing times, I had a few Australians keen to support some poor Indonesian families for a year - but then the Corby drug case in Bali resulted in a 20-year jail sentence for the Australian girl and so the desire to help Indonesia disappeared. Whereas I deplore the Indonesian courts and their justice system, does it really warrant pulling the plug on poor people who have absolutely nothing at all to do with this drug case? It's a tough world out there.

Email 27 July 2005


This is an attempt to provide an explanation about the use and abuse of aid money. In writing this, I accept that there are a huge number of very generous and genuine people who tirelessly work for the benefit of the less fortunate. That said, there is another side to the coin.

I have lived and worked in Aceh province since 1992 and so I know a wee bit about the place, the people, their customs and their religion. I try to be a writer and an observer of events, and of course the tsunami was one event that all of us will never forget. What happened in the first two or three months after the wave was quite incredible, in as much as the doctors and humanitarian workers performed miracles in a situation that was extremely difficult. I have no problems with that at all but, behind the scenes, other things were happening.

I was so focused on the disaster that I never realized that prices for accommodation, transport and other commodities had gone through the roof. I was living in one of the camps, as the people of Lhoknga village made me feel at home in a place that had been home for the past 15 years. Of course, Lhoknga was completely destroyed and at least half the villagers died in the tragedy. Enter the NGO's who are supposedly focused on the rebuilding (reconstruction) of Aceh and if I were to say they are a mixed bag, then I am being generous with my words. General opinion (and this is not just mine) is that the vast majority of them are ignorant, arrogant and unskilled.

They claim to be professionals and this no doubt comes from the training programs they must have attended. The most senior UN boat expert came to Medan to tell stories of how NGO's have thrown money at local people to build new fishing boats which, in his opinion (and I gather he knows what he talks about), will likely sink in no time. I make a point of not telling NGO's in Medan bars who I am and how long I've been here, because if I do they stop talking and I learn nothing. The other day, one who didn't know me quite openly said that he was no different from all his other colleagues who are simply here for the money. He went on to say that in other countries they had thrown money at hopeless projects because that is what the orders were. Everybody apparently knew this, and there were other stories on the same lines that ended with a statement that Indonesia and Medan was paradise and the longer it lasts the better.

I have spent a considerable amount of time in Aceh in the last six months and have travelled around on the back of a motorbike. I am 62 years of age and find that the life up there is difficult, and this for a number of reasons. The NGO's and aid people have put the price of a hotel room far beyond my pocket, hence I live in a tent with 286 Acehnese people who have pretty poor toilet facilities. In the meantime, the aid workers live in comparative luxury and many drive around in expensive cars. They eat at the best restaurants (not all of them) and many of those cars sit idle all day outside the seconded office. As an example, I pay Rp15 million per year for my house in Medan that sits in probably one of the best housing estates in the city. NGO's and aid people rent houses in Banda Aceh for anything between Rp100 million and Rp650 million per year. They may well be sleeping on mattresses and two or three to a room, but even so, the cost is horrendous.
One Irish NGO got thrown out of Aceh the other day because they had a serious drink problem – I think they are called GOAL. The problem I have (and I'm far from alone in this) is that the money donated by, let's say, the ordinary man in the street is clearly being abused. The money donated to Aceh is probably at least twice the amount that is needed, but the way things are going, it would seem for many reasons that the cost of rebuilding will be at least three times what it could cost if controls were in place. There are corruption problems that will creep into this scenario for sure – already building materials have doubled in price, etc.

Many people already think that nations which have pledged money to this cause have only done so on the understanding that the business of rebuilding comes their way, so they can claw back the vast majority of the original pledge. That may be difficult to prove, but nonetheless it is a factor. There are other reasons as well for pledges, that take on board the political scene worldwide, and maybe everyone would say this is unavoidable. The problem with this is that we have all become brainwashed and conditioned into this rather negative way of thinking, because clearly the gap between rich and poor is growing and the disasters all over the place are getting worse.
We are failing to get to grips with the solutions because the vast majority of people only want to take – but that is nothing new. When you open this out a little more you find on-board the terrorist who, although misguided, kicks back at a system we all know is wrong. What we fail to do is to face up to the realities of a disastrous system. It is not enough for G8 countries to give more (although that will obviously help) because if the bucket is full of holes, what is the point of giving more?

To me it is simple – we need to learn about humanity and giving – all of us. Indonesia is a bit like dog eat dog and there are good reasons for that – any of us will know how big the picture can become, if we are willing and have the time to research and to go to the places and see for ourselves. Somewhere along the line the corruption starts, and what bad aid workers don't understand is that if you take money under false pretences then that is corruption, big time.
As an ending note, I also appreciate there are circumstances that may well be beyond even the United Nations, let alone the aid agencies and organizations, but with better planning and a little more understanding of cultures and situations, a better job can be done – and needs to done. Disasters call for immediate action and that is understandable, but from that point on you need co-ordination and not hundreds of NGO's all wanting to go their own way. The UN tried, but people simply did not go to the meetings.

I can give one more simple example of stupidity. Back in January, when everyone was still in a situation of stress and trauma, certain NGO's came round to some campsites and gave out money. Lhoknga village was split into four camp sites and the Turkish organisation gave each tent Euro500. The French gave US$100 to every individual in their campsite. The other two sites did not have a sponsor and so they got nothing. What that did was to cause animosity among the village people, through understandable jealousy. Those NGO's did not know I was living in one of the unfavoured camp sites and when I tried to get the four campsite chiefs together to share the money, I was quickly told by the NGO's to mind my own business.

Maybe we will never get it right, but a bit of thinking would certainly help. The same thing happened with cows at Ramadhan (the holy month), but then people sometimes never learn. You can say what you see – and what I see is not too good.

Email 29 July 2005

Not being in the area of aid organizations, I cannot know what they teach their people but I feel that many, once in the field, lose their sense of purpose. I have just completed the editing of a Dutchman's life story and he worked extensively for the World Bank in Washington and was in Somalia, Kenya, Indonesia, India and many other third world countries working on aid projects.

The book is depressing in as much as most aid projects failed, and the attitude of the foreign power controlling the money and the project came over as quite disgraceful. There is a naivety about the book in as much as the viewpoint held by a re-patronatized Dutchman, who was born in Indonesia in 1928 and then found it difficult in his life to belong elsewhere, is rather biased and hugely critical. But it is clear that the people at the top who are involved in aid distribution and decision-making do this often for the wrong reasons – but that is political.

The World Bank is often in conflict with the IMF and also the United Nations, as interests are a real mixture of humanitarian concerns and political objectives. All the time that there are such divides, then the objectives become diluted and often corrupted. There are too many hidden agendas and of course people are not stupid when it comes to lobbing out money out of their own pockets. When I was in England two years ago this very topic came up in discussions one day. Everyone was in agreement that aid money and aid workers were highly questionable, and this is still the case today.

It needs genuine people at the top and a system that operates efficiently and effectively through monitoring channels, which regularly review progress or the lack of it. It also needs people who understand people and cultures and fears and repercussions from their actions and also a realization that often local people know best. They may not do it the way we think it should be done, but their ways are more effective and of course they have ownership.

This is where the arrogance comes into it as the West always thinks it knows best. Plus there is a real danger that if the third world countries get themselves organized and profitable, then world trade will swing their way to the detriment of the West. I do believe that a lot of the failures in third world countries are meant to fail – if you know what I mean. Logically, the amount of money thrown at poverty over the years should by now have produced positive results but it hasn't, and I don't think some people want that to be successful.

Protectionism is organized on very high levels and I wouldn't mind betting that there is an evil existing in the corridors of power that would make the Islamic terrorists resemble Snow White. You will never catch them out as they all belong to the untouchables club. I received an email from an Indonesian only yesterday that was headed 'there is no God because there is no humanity'. I know the person who in fact was imprisoned in 1997 when the Jakarta riots were in full swing – an activist and a fighter for women's rights in a Muslim country.

Blair probably has the right thinking but even he is but a pawn in the overall state of affairs – although he is a big pawn. I call the whole thing 'the can of worms' which no one wants to take the lid off. It's better if we push the military solution and continue on the assumption that eventually the terrorists will run out of resources and recruits – but there is a real danger that they won't. Everybody knows there are lots of good people everywhere but very few are in a position or have the time to do anything about it.

Pains in the arse like me have all the time in the world and ask people awkward questions which they detest. My father always said this world was not easy, but he would turn in his grave at what happens today as opposed to the 1950's. Still we will soldier on and hopefully one day find the wise people to turn it all around. Our charity/disabled project now has a website – namely www.p3c-aceh.org - and so slowly slowly we are getting there.

I was more interested in the attitude of the people who refuse to give to charities – who think people in the third world should put in a proper day's work. I wonder if these people have ever studied the effects of being subjected to a dictatorial rule for decades. Sure, they appear lazy because they have no incentives and of course the climate in third world countries does not lend itself to hard physical work. I have been told many times by Indonesians that I will never understand their plight even if I stayed here for 100 years – but that I don't believe, because the signs are everywhere if you take the time to look and investigate.

I've had the hairs on the back of my neck sticking up a few times, but the complexities of solving the problems are enormous because it requires a total change of attitude by everyone – big time. Our societies are not geared up for this because they are driven by self-interest, which of course is understandable.

At the moment I'm heavily into this Islamic thing which is another area that is obviously going in the wrong direction. Clearly now it has become Muslim versus Muslim, but those that have studied the subject of Islam will know that this has been the case for centuries. Was it the Chinese that said 'we live in interesting times' – no matter who – I'll go along with that one.

Email 1 August 2005

There have been hundreds of separate stories regarding tsunami survivors, and all of those have been sad in there own ways. People's lives have now been exposed far more than before, because prior to December 26th 2004 they were just ordinary people who had their own problems like everyone else. We already know that Aceh was not the easiest place to live, but every now and then there comes a story with a happy outcome. Sixteen year-old Farida comes from Lamno district Aceh Jaya and was paralyzed before the wave came. Farida was in Lingke Banda Aceh when the earthquake happened and was unable to do anything when everyone else panicked and shouted that a giant wave was coming.

Lingke is only one kilometer from the sea and in a matter of minutes the place was deserted as people ran from the wave. In the deep silence that prevailed, Farida heard the booming sounds of the surging water and the noises of falling objects as the destruction took place. As the sounds got louder her hair stood on end because now she was all on her own and absolutely petrified. In that utter fear Farida miraculously stood up and began to run. Within a minute or so the water caught her up and she remembers reciting prayers as the water rolled over her.

Somehow she survived the wave and was later reunited with her friends and sister. So out of this tragedy came a miracle, as everyone stood and gaped at the fact that Farida could walk. Since that time Farida has become resolved to teaching people how to recite the Koran. Perhaps it is hard to imagine what those moments of fear were like for Farida, but when you look into the blood-shot eyes of many of the Acehnese survivors you can see that they were also more than frightened by this horrific experience. I think it matters not if you are religious, as people will believe what they want to believe, but there is no getting away from the fact that the fear was so intense that mind over matter took over – and Farida stood up and ran for her life.

For every good story there are of course thousands of sad ones and perhaps it is enough to say there is total of 35,000 orphaned children in Aceh. Although the vast majority of refugees are either in temporary wooden barracks or still in the original tents, there has been a lot of effort put into the schooling side within the tsunami-struck areas. Credit must go to a lot of Indonesian companies for generous funding that has seen most of the damaged schools repaired. Seeing children dressed for school and leaving the camp sites early morning was one of the first examples of returning to normality.

On a different subject, I watched the BBC World program on Ethiopia yesterday and how 20 years further on there are now twice as many starving people in that country than when Bob Geldoff and the Boom Town Rats did their famous fund-raising record. Then Band Aid was launched and the response again tremendous. There is little doubt that Geldoff nagged the politicians and indeed the 'iron lady' herself (Maggie Thatcher) until eventually they were all shamed for their lack of action and humanity, despite the political and leadership problems in that country.

I know in an earlier letter I complained about aid workers and the tremendous waste of funds – perhaps it would have been enough to say we've simply got it all wrong when it takes music to stir the world into doing something positive. But whatever happened to sustainability?

On a brighter note, three members of the European Union peace monitoring team arrived in Aceh this weekend. No matter the amount of money available for the rebuilding of Aceh, most of it will go to waste if peace is not established and maintained. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government are to sign a peace agreement on August 15 which is two days prior to Indonesia's official Independence Day. In all there will be a 200 strong peace monitoring team from the EU plus about 100 others from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines.

The foreign monitors will serve for six months with a further six months extension being possible. The main tasks will be to oversee the decommissioning of weapons that will be surrendered by GAM as well the peaceful withdrawal of non-local Indonesian troops from Aceh. It will also monitor compliance with the peace deal and define mechanisms for dispute settlement in case of violations. This conflict has been going on for three decades and this is the third time a peace agreement has come forward – this one does appear to be workable and successful. If all that goes well, then the restructuring of Aceh can go ahead full steam.

There is little doubt that the tsunami disaster has had a tremendous effect on these peace negotiations as Aceh on the 26th December 2004 plunged into the world headlines for the wrong reasons. The region suddenly became high-profile and was forced to open its boundaries to the world at large. We could be cynical here and say it took a tragic natural disaster to change the thinking of mankind – and some are saying other things on the same lines. But that aside, the prospects look more than good, and for sure a lot of Acehnese people will sleep far better when all the guns have been finally put away. Perhaps I see no more point in writing from this moment on, as people's minds are now clearly focused on re-building lives, families and living a peaceful existence. That at least is something well worthwhile to take away from this disaster despite the horrendous costs. Will we ever learn from history?

Email 17 August 2005

Perhaps a report on Aceh province would not be complete without a mention of the two day mass prayers that are being carried out as from August 14th in support of the signing of the peace agreement between the Aceh Free Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government. Probably something like 15000 people have lost their lives since this struggle began in 1976 which averages out to about 1.5 people per day. That may not sound a lot in comparison to the 250,000 people that perished in just 10 minutes with the Dec 26th tsunami, but this fight for independence has left far more scars on the Acehnese than the wave has done. The finer details of the peace agreement will soon be known and hopefully whatever is agreed will be honoured by all sides in this 29 year-old conflict.

Giant screens have been installed inside the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh to allow the Acehnese to witness the signing of the peace agreement in Jakarta. No less than 60 tents have been erected inside the compound of the mosque which will accommodate about 15,000 Acehnese. The drums have also been beating for two days and it would seem to me that this time a lasting and workable peace deal has been agreed – certainly there is greater optimism.

The problems (if there are any) will likely come from the remote areas although most Acehnese are tired of living within a conflict situation. The tsunami of Dec 26th 2004 finally and dramatically forced Indonesia back to the talking/negotiating table as that wave has devastated the entire west coast. It is all too much to bear and the cost has been considerable and almost unbearable for many. When a region is on its knees and badly beaten there is only one way to go and that is forward and upwards.  I will return to Aceh next week to work on reconstruction for five years – and hopefully see the province grow again in strength and character.

There are obvious dangers in this rebuilding of Aceh province as now peace has come so the lid will come off the big tin of aid money, and in amongst that will be a mixture of genuine concern, corruption and politics. The rest of Indonesia will also be looking at what Aceh gets in the way of living accommodation, roads, schools, hospitals and other facilities, for there are many regions elsewhere that will experience some envy towards what could be called the now favoured Acehnese. It's all about keeping the balance otherwise jealousies will prevail.  

14 November 2005

Thanks for your Email and yes, things have moved on and at the moment (fingers crossed) are looking good. I've managed to work my way into most of the NGO's and currently have enquiries coming out our ears. 2,000 houses, 85 community halls, hospital, school, fruit and vegetable market but no casino so far. I'm working on plan B which tries to get them all to work together but that one is an uphill battle. I pop in and see Hugh's project (Hugh Crawford of the Aceh Disabled Rehabilitation Centre:  www.p3c-aceh.org) when I have time and visit the widows at Lhoknga every two weeks. We have 8 on board at the moment and a couple of Australian friends want to support two more.

We are getting the hash (a fund-raising cross-country race) up and running again hopefully in Feb/March next year with the help of locals, two men in Germany, one in the Philippines and an ex-Mobil man in Medan. Bit of a mixture but all hashers and a great bunch of blokes. I visit and stay in the tent at weekends and then live in a proper house during the week with the chairman of the Acehnese Contractors Association. Big man in Banda Aceh and his family are more than good to me. I have an office, a computer, an ashtray and a waste bin plus AC and someone brings me coffee from time to time – what more could a man want?

I am also writing again but more on this Islamic angle as that seems to be the big thing now. It is a question of whether people are willing enough to open their minds to a fairly complex situation that was born centuries ago and yet still lingers on. Part of the answer lies in education but a lot needs to be done elsewhere on 'both' sides before we can start going forward. In the meantime we are bolting the hatches down and await the next explosion. Aceh is fairly safe in this respect as the militants are not wanted up here and the Acehnese have their own ways of weeding them out. The rest of Indonesia is on full alert and quite rightly so. But of course you have your own problems in the UK so best you stay alert especially with Christmas looming. 

17 December 2005

The following email was sent recently by David Wallis in Indonesia's Aceh Province to the Rev M, a concerned minister living in the highlands of Scotland. It as part of an on-gong discussion of the effectiveness of the aid programme in the area devastated by the 26 December  tsunami.

David represents (is) the individual or small group with local knowledge and total commitment, versus the very large multi-national NGO/Aid Agency with its high level of overheads and operating costs, its 'professionalism', its career operatives and its lack of local knowledge and concern.

Thanks, M, for the email. I read the attachment and of course it is full of things that we all know some from personal experience and many by word of mouth. I have spent probably the best part of 6 months on and off in Aceh and most of that time has been in the tents along the coastline. I won't say I'm an expert or indeed that I am aware of everything that is happening or not happening, but I join the weekly shelter meetings to hear the many problems that exist in Aceh. My good friend and neighbour here in Medan is in Sri Lanka at the moment so we exchange stories which, to be fair, sound much the same.

To be honest progress has been painfully slow and although the logistical problems are enormous, NGO's, the Indonesian government, local government and many others have failed to work together and that alone has complicated the problems. I joined an Acehnese construction company for three months and then (cap in hand) went to the NGO's for business. That would include World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Service and maybe 50 others. I did a presentation at the NGO shelter meeting that was headed 'Working Together' and never got a single response.

The UN called my task 'mission impossible' as they also had tried to coordinate NGO's. Being over ten years in Aceh gave me a fair amount of inside information but it was hard (if not impossible) to get people to understand the culture, the trauma, the customs, the language and how these tent people feel about this horrendous experience. Easy to find a sad story, easy to say we have helped 500,000 people and built 55,000 houses but try telling the tent people this tale.

As an example: the UN multi-donor trust fund, committed to building 25,000 houses, has built none. ADB, committed to 21,250 houses, have built none. World Vision 7,700 and none built. Canadian Red Cross 7,450 and none built. Care International 8,000 and built 40. KFW Germany 10,000 and built 80. UNHCR 3,500 and built none. Save the Children 3,000 and built none. Catholic Relief Service 18,000 and built 400 with over 1,050 under construction which is far and above the many other NGO's/Aid Organizations.

The list is almost endless and in telling you this I know from experience the many land problems, transportation difficulties, rising prices and lots of other problems that have hampered this reconstruction. In a nutshell, promises were made by aid organizations who had no real idea about the place, the difficulties, the people or indeed the disaster. Very few of them were in Aceh in January to March when the rescue people from many countries carried out the most difficult of tasks in a very commendable way - I take my hat off to them.

Then the money boys arrived, the rich NGO's with promises they couldn't keep, giving out money to people in tents and not realizing the jealousies they were creating. Easy, perhaps, to look back and point a finger in a tragedy never experienced before. Inflation in Banda Aceh has gone through the roof, salaries paid to Indonesians by NGO's have created more local problems and in my humble opinion two things would have been better: (1) A team of experienced people could have taken control and centralize activities so that NGO's cannot go ther own way. (2) The people could have been given enough money to build their own houses because the cost of keeping 250+ NGO's in Aceh is astronomical.

It is debatable whether the NGO'S costs: their rents; 4x4 Land Cruisers; R&R; plane fares; living expenses and whatever-else, are greater than the cost of building the houses. I doubt very much if one single house in Aceh will cost less than Rp100 million but an NGO will tell you the contractor won the order at Rp 45 million. It is real costs that count - or should do.

That's it from me - hope it is not too much of a bore but I have a thing about Aceh, their war and their people - probably comes under the heading of a pain in the butt.