&ldquoThis was an event like an apocalypse – says American jounalist William Nessen, describing accounts of the Tsunami given to him by local people in Aceh, Indonesia – Many people thought it was judgement day. The sea went dry for kilometres, some say for 5-7 kilometres, and then came in as a giant wall of black water, that people described like a cobra”.
Aceh was arguably the worst hit area by the December 26th tsunami. Nearly a quarter of a million people, according to Reuters, have been killed or reported missing in the Indonesian province.
Prior to the tsunami, the province was virtually shut off from the outside world, due to a declaration of martial law in 2003 by the Indonesian Government, as part of their ongoing war with Acehnese separatists. The devestation of the tsunami has forced the Government to open up the province to aid workers, and therefore also to attention from the world's media. &ldquoIf the tsunami was like judgement day, then the arrival of foreigners has been like deliverance”, says Nessen, who has been imprisoned once, and deported twice by the Indonesian Government, after reporting from the troubled province. It's obvious though, to Nessen, aid workers, the Indonesian Government, and the Acehnese people themselves, that Aceh is moving into an even more uncertain future, where numerous conflicting needs and interests compete.
The Aid Operation
&ldquoIn terms of the emergency, we’re moving into a medium term approach now”, Médecins Sans Frontières spokesman James Lorenz told Three Monkeys Online. &ldquoThere’s still ongoing distribution of non-food items like tents, blankets and jerry cans, but the main need now, though, is reconstruction. Our concentration in MSF now is on trying to get the primary health care structures up and functioning. We’re focussing on mental health”.
&ldquoWhat’s really been surprising, – continues Lorenz – if that’s the right word for it, has been the willingness of the Acehnese to get back to where they came from, to reconstruct their lives as quickly as possible. People have put tents up everywhere, they’re staying with relatives, they’re staying to a certain extent outside the Government organised camps and the goal really seems to be to rebuild their houses, to rebuild their lives, and to get on with it. It’s incredible how quickly it’s been happening”.
To date, thankfully, the large scale epidemics that were feared in the wake of the tsunami have been avoided. Lorenz explains that &ldquonormally, when there has been a disaster and people group together, naturally you start thinking about measles, about cholera, and in the second phase you start worrying about malaria. In this case it didn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet. That’s not to say that it won’t happen in the future, but from the positive viewpoint it hasn’t happened yet. The reason for this is the simple fact that the Acehnese have the cultural habit of boiling water before they drink it, which helps to avoid the transmission of diseases like cholera”.
A precise balance on the death and destruction is virtually impossible to get. According to Brian Scott, the executive director of Oxfam Ireland, about 3,000 villages and towns were destroyed or badly damaged, while half of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, was wiped out.
&ldquoThe entire infrastructure has been destroyed” says Lorenz. &ldquoThat makes it extremely difficult logistically to get operations on the ground. For example, on the west coast you normally take the road from Banda Aceh down to Lamno, to Chalang, to Meulaboh – that road is completely destroyed. The harbours were destroyed initially, so everything had to be carried by helicopter, so that wasn’t easy to do.
When I suggest that there has been a certain amount of criticism related to the emergency operation in Aceh, Lorenz agrees that “the aid operation has been problematic – and it is true that there has been difficulties, sometimes there’s work that has been replicated, and sometimes there’s been work that hasn’t been done, but it hasn’t had a dramatic effect, in my opinion. The main problems were that in a lot of areas, like Banda Aceh for example, the administrative quarters were right next to the sea, and so the administration was wiped out. So immediately after the tsunami, there was no administration to start the relief work. Our team arrived within 48 hours. Then there was a huge flood of organisations. The scale of the disaster and the scale of the response, has been unprecedented [Lorenz reports that to the best of his knowledge there are 250 different aid agencies on the ground in Aceh], and that’s caught some people unawares. It’s been extremely difficult for organisations like OCHA [United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] to be able to control what’s happening. The other problem is that Aceh is under military control, and I think it is uncomfortable for a lot of aid agencies to have to work with the military, and the military are understandably suspicious of agencies and their motives, and that has slowed progress somewhat”.
The Psychology of the Survivors
One of the key concerns of aid agencies like MSF now is the psychological care of the survivors of the tsunami. &ldquoWe’re doing group sessions, giving information on what the tsunami actually was” explains Lorenz. ”A lot of people have been blaming themselves, for the way they’ve lived their lives. We’re explaining the natural phenomena, and getting people together and really listening to them in groups. Then, people we’ve identified as having been severely affected can receive individual counselling sessions. The second phase of that is to work with the local groups to make sure that the mental health care is sustainable, that it can be carried on long term. People are talking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it’s too early to talk about that. People have gone through a catastrophic natural event, and they’re in a state of shock. A lot of people are effectively in an acute state of shock, but it’s important not to pathologise this. It’s not a disease, or a syndrome, it’s a natural reaction. What we’re trying to do on the ground is to normalise the situation, to let people know that it’s normal what they’re going through. And that’s a good way to reduce the level of stress that they’re feeling.