Q&A: After the tsunami
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Betty Udesen traveled to Indonesia's Aceh province, the area hardest hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami.
Seattle Times editor Jim Simon moderated a discussion with them.
Can you provide a sense of your first impressions when you arrived in Meulaboh? Were you prepared for the level of destruction that you saw? — Jim Simon, moderator
Betty Udesen, photographer: I didn't expect everything to be so brown, so flattened. It reminded me of what I saw of the destruction from Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua.
Hal Bernton, reporter: I really was not at all prepared. I thought for sure we would see lots of damage, but not acres upon acres of city homes that were just leveled right down to the foundations. Also, the damage that the sea wrought on plant life, turning so much farmland brown, also surprised me. I also was surprised how far the sea rushed inland, wherever the coastline opened up into river valleys or broader plains.
In Indonesia, in the midst of such an overwhelming disaster, how were you able to function as reporters — what kind of working conditions were there, how could you get around from place to place, etc.? — Jim Simon, moderator
We arrived in Indonesia in early January, some two weeks after the waves had struck. The downtown center of Meulaboh, the city where we first stayed, was completely gutted, and thousands of people were still missing under the rubble. We stayed in a small Islamic school that had been vacated to help house aid groups, including Mercy Corps, a Pacific Northwest organization that was one of the early responders in that city. They shared their space with us. The school's courtyard was filled with tents, with many more people sleeping and eating and trying to do office work in the classrooms. The heat was pretty overwhelming, even with occasional rains that flooded the courtyard. But we kept hydrated with the help of bottled water, and though my appetite kind of waned, we were able to buy rice with bits of chicken or shrimp for an evening meal, which arrived wrapped in a banana leaf and brown paper.
I think in these situations, reporters function a lot on adrenaline, as you see so many folks around you who have suffered so much. There were a lot of late nights batting around mosquitoes and filing stories, which were sent via the aid of a satellite phone. After the first week, I moved out of the school as classes resumed, and into a rented home. After the move, living conditions improved.
We were prepared to carry everything on our backs, if need be. We brought a water-purification filter, but by the time we arrived, nearly two weeks after the tsunami hit, there was bottled water available. It helped to be accompanied at first by an American, Maurice Knight, who was volunteering with Mercy Corps in Meulaboh. Knight lives in Jakarta and speaks Indonesian. He was able not only to translate but to explain local customs as well.
At times Hal and I rode on scooters and once on a bicycle taxi. We found we could fit three on a scooter, even with my cameras.
We found the Indonesians to be friendly, positive people. In general, when they speak of a heart-wrenching personal loss, their face may show none of the sadness inside. We were told that this is customary.
Aceh, the province hardest hit by the tsunami, has been engulfed by fighting between the Indonesian military and Acehnese insurgents seeking independence. How visible were the signs of the war and the military presence? Did you have many direct encounters with the Indonesian military, outside of what you wrote about in today's article? — Jim Simon, moderator
H. B.: For much of the trip, we were in northwest Aceh, where there are plenty of signs of the military, but we saw no signs of fighting. The school where we stayed was right next to a military post, where aid officials would meet each evening with Army officials to discuss the progress of the relief effort. Often, the military officials would warn about the dangers of traveling to rural areas without armed escorts, and this was sometimes a source of tension. After dark, they didn't even want us traveling around the city without escort. That was a problem when we went on a two-day boat trip up the coast, returning to Meulaboh's dock after dark.
At first, the Army soldiers at the dock told us it was past curfew, and that we could not make the roughly 5-mile trip back to our base at the school. But finally, we were able to pile into the back of a truck and make it to the school. And overall, at that base, the military in Meulaboh were reasonably hospitable as they hosted such an expected surge of international aid workers.
As indicated in today's story about eastern Aceh, the situation there is fraught with tension, and the military has tried to prevent reporters from visiting villages where the conflict has flared.
Millions of dollars in aid has been promised. What sense do you have that it's really making a difference on the ground? Are lives and villages slowly being restored? — Mark, Seattle
B. U.: Many coastal villages cannot be rebuilt. Part of the land of Kuala Bubon, for example, is now under the Indian Ocean, where the coastline is altered and even a soccer field is invisible under the new landscape. The current plan is for the rebuilding of this village further inland, but this was a village of fishermen. Their main protein and livelihood comes from the sea. Besides needing new boats, they will need money for infrastructure. It will be a slow process.
I think that early on, the air drops by the U.S. Navy and other nations were a key lifeline to the most isolated communities, and did indeed save a lot of lives. Now, much of the food to the isolated areas is arriving by boat.
Over the long term, if the millions in aid dollars do show up, there could be a real chance to improve the plight of survivors as new communities are erected with better access to clean-drinking water and sanitation than some of the old villages. But for the moment, so many people are stuck in tents, and without jobs and without their old homes and villages, it is really tough for the folks I met to keep their spirits up.
There is a lot of controversy about where to rebuild and the role of the Indonesian military in resettlement. Due to the years of war, many people in Aceh remain very wary and even fearful of the army.
In some past disasters, many Western governments and aid groups have been criticized for their short attention spans, spending lots of money responding to emergencies but not investing in long-term development and reconstruction. Is there any reason to believe that there will be long-term international support for rebuilding Aceh? Is there any worry that the Indonesian government won't let outside aid groups continue operating long-term in Aceh? — Jim Simon, moderator
H. B.: It is difficult to predict what the situation will be one year from now. Many of the international aid groups that are now in Aceh hope to work in the province over the long term, but it is still too soon to say how open the province will remain. There seems to be a substantial effort led by the United Nations to try to make sure that the international money actually comes through — unlike aid money pledged, but never delivered, for previous disasters.
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