Help slow to arrive for town that died
Seattle Times staff reporter
CALANG, Indonesia — From the sea, the power of the tsunami is first evident carved on the steep bluffs that mark the entryway to the town harbor.
A thick green forest once rimmed these heights. It has been leveled by waves that reached up more than 100 feet above sea level to clear-cut the trees.
The waves pounded Calang with stunning ferocity, transforming the town into a kind of ground zero for the tsunami's human tragedy.
More than 7,300 people once lived in the town, in brick and concrete houses erected on a flat plain between a palm-lined beach and mountain foothills. Indonesian military officials report that 6,020 of the residents died in the Dec. 26 disaster.
The scale of the loss — and the continuing hardships of those who survive in Calang and the surrounding district — is only slowly emerging.
In the midst of perhaps the largest international relief effort in history, substantial outside help is just now — more than two weeks after the tsunami — starting to reach Calang and neighboring villages. Only recently, for example, were latrines installed in the refugee camp.
A major problem is logistics. The only way relief groups can deliver large amounts of supplies to the ravaged area is by ship. And some villages can't be reached by ship.
In addition, the Indonesian government has been wary of allowing international aid groups to operate in the more remote areas of the politically sensitive region.
"Hard for us to bear"
Zulfian Ahmad, 53, was in Jakarta on business when the quake hit. He had left behind his wife and three children.
Ahmad, the elected leader of Calang and the surrounding district known as Aceh Jaya that encompasses more than 120 villages, returned several days later to find his family was dead. He then joined stunned survivors in a camp of Indonesian army tents set up at the edge of the beach.
In the days that followed, he learned that 100 of 120 villages in the district had been destroyed. The district once had a population of 87,624 people, but the tsunami killed more than 20,000 and left more than 46,000 homeless, according to Indonesian government statistics.
"This is very, very hard for us to bear," Ahmad said.
Calang was among the Indonesian communities closest to the epicenter of the undersea earthquake that triggered the tsunami. The sequence of cataclysmic events that demolished the town differs from that recounted in communities more distant from the quake.
In Calang, the ground shook for 10 minutes, according to survivor accounts. Less than five minutes after the tremors stopped, the ocean water began to rush out and stayed out for some 15 minutes before waves roared back in.
"Everyone knew to run to high ground, but some people stopped to gather up belongings, and those people did not make it," said Fahmi Suliaman, 37, a government worker.
From a hillside perch, Suliaman said, he watched waves more than 40-feet high wash over the village. More waves moved in. He said he couldn't hear the cries of the dying, only the roar of the water.
The water didn't just tear apart the buildings, it flattened them and stripped away the shade of a tree-lined beachfront that local officials once hoped to promote for tourism.
"We had beautiful sunsets, and I liked to take pictures of them," Suliaman said.
Much remains undoneA tent camp has risen alongside the dead town, offering refuge for 2,500 to 4,200 survivors from Calang and nearby coastal villages.
But more than two weeks after the tsunami, Indonesia's military, which has taken the lead in establishing the camp, is falling short of meeting basic needs.
Tents at the Calang camp are in such short supply that some people, as of Wednesday, had to sleep outside, Ahmad said.
Sanitation is a serious public-health problem. Only this week did the camp open five latrine holes. In a survey, 80 percent of the children were found to have diarrhea, said Rick Brennan, who spent several days this week at Calang as a representative of the New York-based International Rescue Committee.
Brennan, one of a handful of international aid officials at the camp, concluded much remains to be done.
"From a humanitarian point of view, we've got to move quickly. People are pooping in the bushes and collecting water from nearby water sources."
This week, the effort to get supplies to the camp appeared to be gaining strength. An Indonesian hospital ship was on hand. Next to it, a cargo landing craft unloaded supplies that included tins of fish, rice, chile sauce and instant noodle soup, while a second cargo ship was offshore.
A tent school also opened this week, with traumatized parents tagging along with the students. "Every day, they press close to the tent because they want to be near the children," Suliaman said.
But it is uncertain how many international groups will be allowed into the Calang district, and for how long.
Cramped by politicsCalang is in Aceh province, on the northwest coast of Sumatra, where the Indonesian military has been battling insurgent separatist forces, the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, for nearly three decades.
In recent years, more than 40,000 Indonesian soldiers were sent into the province, and the region was largely closed to foreigners.
Since the disaster, the Indonesian military has maintained most of the control of relief efforts in the dozens of villages outside the major cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. The military also has restricted foreigners' movements in Meulaboh, requiring them to retire after dark to cramped quarters, at least one of which is guarded at night.
But Ahmad, the political leader of the Calang area, appears to welcome foreign involvement in rebuilding his shattered district.
"I would like to send a message: Thank you for what you have done for the people here," Ahmad said. "Of course, we hope that the help doesn't stop now, and goes forward, because we have just started to put things together."
Some of the toughest challenges involve the villages outside Calang. One is Panga, a coastal community some 20 miles south. It no longer has any semblance of a road connecting to the outside world.
Conditions make it difficult for ships to unload supplies. Two tried Wednesday. But they both capsized and were unable to unload their cargo, according to a representative of the village refugees.
So, Panga villagers said, they rely on U.S. military helicopters, which drop food, for survival.
But villagers still appear to have a meager diet. Yesterday in Panga, survivors said they were generally eating one meal a day, and that was largely rice or noodles.
"I can't remember the last time I ate any meat," said Sofwan, a gaunt 16-year-old who was hanging out with other youngsters by the helicopter landing strip.
There does not appear to be much work for the villagers. Military officials in Panga said they would like to organize a body-retrieval patrol. But many of the corpses are difficult to reach, swept into a marsh behind the village. Besides, there are no body bags, said Lt. Col Reza Utama.
At some point, U.S. helicopters are sure to end the expensive air drops. Villagers then will either have to find a way to bring supplies in by sea — or move.
Indonesian military officials have announced plans to consolidate the refugees into fewer camps that could be more easily served by road.
At least in Panga, some are determined to stay.
Among the ruined buildings and toppled trees, someone recently planted a coconut. Two pieces of broken cement mark the site.
The coconut has begun to sprout.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com.
While in Indonesia, some transportation and accommodations for Times staffers have been provided by Mercy Corps, a Portland- and Seattle-based relief group.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company