Aid workers learning how hard it will be
Seattle Times staff reporter
KUALA BUBON, Indonesia — Fisherman Teuku Marhaban takes visitors on a tour of his shattered village, hopping across concrete slabs strewn with reminders of what was lost: a child's red dress, a silver serving cup, a tape deck perched improbably on a toppled brick chimney.
The tour ends at the edge of a ragged new shoreline formed by piles of debris. There, Marhaban cups his hand over his eyes, and looks out to sea where the rest of his village — some 50 homes, including his own — once stood. Now, they are submerged beneath some six to eight feet of water, with only a stray palm poking above the surface.
"My house, I built it myself eight years ago," Marhaban said. "It had three big rooms of cement and brick. It was almost new."
The fate of Kuala Bubon offers dramatic evidence of the difficulties that face aid organizations as they respond to the havoc wreaked by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami on coastal villages along the western Sumatra coast.
More than two weeks after the event, Indonesian and international aid workers are just beginning to visit some of the more isolated villages — such as Kuala Bubon — and survey the damage.
Marhaban, who was out fishing that day, said that the quake, whose epicenter was off the Sumatran coast, did the most serious damage. As it shook the village, a roughly 500- to 600-foot-wide swath of the coastline abruptly subsided, sending land full of houses and a soccer field to the ocean bottom, Marhaban said.
"My wife, she saw the soccer field buckle with the quake, and water start to spray out," Marhaban said.
His wife and four children fled inland, along with more than 400 other villagers who were scared away by the initial earthquake.
An additional 126 villagers died, a tiny sliver of the more than 105,000 Indonesians estimated to have been killed by the earthquake and tsunami.
Marhaban thought, for sure, that he would be one of them. His boat was shattered by the second and biggest of a series of powerful tsunamis. Clinging to the wooden top of a fish box, he rode the waves in across the drowned village, then was swept more than a mile inland before finally washing up in a neighboring village.
"It was God's will that this was not my judgment day," he said.
On this day, Marhaban has returned to Kuala Bubon with Maurice Knight of Mercy Corps, a Portland-based aid group that plans to jump-start cash-for-work projects in villages hit by the tsunami.
Knight hopes that as many as 50 men from Kuala Bubon might be willing to leave temporary shelters in a nearby village and begin clearing away rubble at this site. But as he tours Kuala Bubon, Knight quickly abandons that plan, stunned by the seismic forces that had turned village land into sea bottom.
"There's nothing that can be done," Knight said.
Kuala Bubon is one of dozens of coastal villages scattered along a roughly 100-mile stretch of coastline closest to the quake's epicenter.
Just in this immediate area, more than 20 villages were severely damaged — or destroyed — by the quake and subsequent waves. Places like Kuala Bubon, Suak Timah and Suak Pandan. Unknown even to most Indonesians, the villages had endured for centuries, offering easy access to rich fisheries, and often backing up to low-lying flood plains ideal for growing rice.
It is far too early to begin sorting out what can be rebuilt. Many villages still are strewn with corpses.
Survivors are staying in upland villages, in homes, mosques and other public buildings transformed into refugee centers.
The aid effort for the area is based in Meulaboh, a port city that had nearly 80,000 residents before the tsunami blasted through the downtown district, claiming thousands of lives. The aid effort here, though growing day by day, is still much smaller — and less organized — than the larger one under way in Banda Aceh, a hard-hit city at the northern tip of Sumatra.
Despite the massive outpouring of dollars from international donors, it is still a struggle to respond to the basic needs of thousands of widely scattered refugees.
Since late December, U.S. military and helicopters working from offshore carriers have ferried about 800,000 pounds of supplies to more than 50 isolated villages, said Marine Brig. Gen. Christian Cowdrey.
But critical medical supplies, for example, still are piled up back in Medan, a major Sumatran city to the south. Meanwhile, the local hospital in Meulaboh suffers from shortages of crutches, tetanus serum and other staples.
"The frustration is mounting up," said Lt. Erik Voogd, a U.S. Navy doctor who flew in from an aircraft carrier to meet with medical relief groups. "It's not that supplies don't exist somewhere in the region. But it is tough getting them where they are needed."
The logistics problem is complicated by the Indonesian military's sensitivity to the influx of international aid groups. The government has fought an ongoing battle with separatist insurgents in Aceh province, which is at the heart of the disaster zone, and has forbidden most foreigners from entering the region in recent years.
Though the government is now welcoming outside assistance, it is trying to direct the flow of aid and also track the movements of international aid workers.
In Meulaboh, the military has assigned dozens of aid workers space at a school next door to an Army base. It's a small, crowded place, with only two toilet holes and a courtyard jammed with tents periodically swamped by monsoon rains.
Mercy Corps arrived in Meulaboh on Jan. 4, one of the first of more than 25 international aid groups now in the city. Its team claims precious real estate: a school classroom that serves as an office, dining room and sleeping quarters.
The team includes international and Indonesian staffers and is led by Peter Sweetnam, a bearded Scot who specializes in emergency response. He spent last Christmas in Iran helping victims of the Bam earthquake. In December, he had just returned from refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, for the Christmas holidays with his wife, son and daughter when he was summoned to Indonesia.
Beset with a wicked case of sunburn intensified by the effects of an antibiotic taken to ward off malaria, Sweetnam confesses to a bit of disaster fatigue.
Mercy Corps has brought in dried fish and other supplies. But its main niche, at least early on, will be hiring villagers to repair fishing boats and clear away debris. The idea is to give people something to do and inject a bit of cash into the economy.
Sweetnam has been working marathon hours to jump-start the work projects. The team also has received a boost from Knight, an American on loan to Mercy Corps from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Knight has spent 11 years in Indonesia, working largely on coastal-development projects.
Knight is finding some of the survivors are still far too traumatized to return to the villages. At one village, an old man who lost his family tearfully hugs Knight again and again. Another woman says she doesn't want to go back to the village to face the fate of her pregnant sister, whose corpse she fears is stuck in the upper reaches of a palm tree.
"We are still very haunted by this, and are just hoping for other people to come and help before we go back," she says.
But Marhaban, who had been the leader of a local fishing cooperative, offers to return to show Knight the remains of his village. They drive over rutted jungle roads to a swollen, copper-colored river, then hop on a narrow wooden fishing boat — one of the few that survived the tsunami. They journey several miles downstream through a river clogged with wood and other debris.
Finally, they reach Kuala Bubon, now a virtual island, and disembark.
Marhaban picks his way slowly through the flattened portion of the village that lies above the water. He says he has no interest in rebuilding, at least not at this site.
But Marhaban does want to get a new boat as soon as possible and get back to work. Before leaving the village, he reaches out to grasp a piece of fishing net wrapped around the pillar of a collapsed mosque.
Maybe it's worth salvaging.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
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