Inside the Tsunami Relief Effort

In the crushing heat of a Sumatran afternoon, amid the rising odour of rotting flesh, Nurmiah Ali is trudging across a wasteland of broken concrete, staring at the ground as though dreading what she's come here to find. "My two granddaughters," says the 54-year-old through tears. "Both are gone.

Inside the Tsunami Relief Effort

In the crushing heat of a Sumatran afternoon, amid the rising odour of rotting flesh, Nurmiah Ali is trudging across a wasteland of broken concrete, staring at the ground as though dreading what she's come here to find. "My two granddaughters," says the 54-year-old through tears. "Both are gone." Ali's son, Mesriadi, was away from home when his family was swept away, she says, but her daughter-in-law, Siti Hajariah, "went with the waves" - the same ones that swallowed three-year-old Witri Masita and baby Muadi, who was just six months old.

From afar, Ali's search seems pointless: uprooted palms, chunks of roof, even a giant, crumpled backhoe litter the landscape as far as the eye can see, and not a single home remains standing. What's left is a messy checkerboard of concrete floors, interspersed with mounds of debris that reach five kilometres inland. As for the thousands of bodies that have yet to be found and identified, they're already entombed in mud, broken concrete and brick. It would be best, one privately thinks, to declare the entire area a gravesite and move on.

But Ali, wearing a black hijab, will have none of it. Shuffling about on swollen ankles scratched from hours spent walking through wreckage, she cries at times, yet keeps up her search with a grim sense of mission. She and her husband, Jasin, made the one-day trip here by motorcycle from their home in Medan, driven as much by their own need to act as any hope of giving their grandchildren a proper burial. "Maybe we should have a giant ceremony for all the dead in our province," she says. "We just need a way to remember all these people."

Despair, like grief, is a natural human response to large-scale tragedy. Helplessness, it seems, is not. Whether it's Ali's trek through the killing fields north of Banda Aceh, or the frenzy of aid activity in all the ravaged regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, the urge to do something - anything - has become the defining force at work in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 TSUNAMI, whose death toll now stands at 153,000 (101,000 in Indonesia alone). Donors are giving to relief organizations in unheard of numbers, while governments scramble to keep up with public sentiment (Ottawa has indicated it will have to raise its $80-million pledge, including money to match personal donations to eligible charities, which, at week's end, had reached almost $100 million).

The disaster areas, meanwhile, have become hives of anxious movement, symptomatic of the desire to fix problems few fully understand. Banda Aceh, in particular, took on the feel of a war zone last week, with relief planes and helicopters thundering in the skies, and soldiers from at least four countries filling the streets. "I don't know if we're helping," said an Australian engineer, "but there's sure a hell of a lot of us here."

The result, inevitably, has been confusion. Last week, members of an emergency medical team from Estonia spent two days cooling their heels in an airport hangar in Medan because U.S. helicopter pilots couldn't squeeze them onto a flight. "Let's just say the organization could have been a lot better," said Alo Kullerkann, 32, an orthopaedic surgeon. Other relief workers were forced to wait in Jakarta as the Medan airport cleared a backlog of flights due to its inexplicable unwillingness to open round the clock during the first days of the crisis. One plane circled so long that it ran low on fuel and was forced to divert to nearby Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Such glitches are bound to occur in large, multinational operations, says Dirk Booy, vice-president of World Vision Canada. But relief agencies should keep their eyes on the longer term, because the true measure of their efforts may well be the number of lives they save from disease, thirst or malnutrition. It's a thought that sustained veteran aid worker Booy, 46, through nine frustrating days trying to arrange relief flights from Toronto to northern Sumatra after the tsunami first struck. Charged with the seemingly straightforward job of bringing succour to a region within reach of a major airport, he was confronted with a baffling array of logistical challenges - from Indonesian red tape to a water buffalo that was struck by a plane after wandering onto the Banda Aceh airstrip (no people were hurt, but the airfield was shut down for hours).

Now, with 130,000 kg of supplies including soap, sanitary products and an emergency water purification unit on their way to Aceh province, Booy is looking not days and weeks down the road, but months and years. "We all know from experience that when a crisis happens, it gets the world's attention for several weeks and then falls off the radar screen. This time, we just have to follow that rehabilitation all the way through. The fishermen need their nets and boats back. The water lines need to be set back up, and the houses have to be built again."

The immediate challenges are daunting enough. A drive west down the main road from Banda Aceh to Lhonknga Pasar remains a journey through hell, with bagged bodies lining the ditches and a few still floating in mucky sloughs formed when the sea came crashing through. In some neighbourhoods, the heaps of debris are taller than the remaining houses, and the human misery continues to multiply: late last week, Maclean's visited a refugee camp outside Lhonknga just as 28-year-old Ernawati Sulaiman arrived, declaring that her husband was dead, three of her four children had been killed and one was missing. Seated in a tent with tears welling in her eyes, the quiet, tiny woman told a harrowing tale of being swept up in the torrent with all five of her family members. "We were walking home from breakfast at the coffee shop. I thought I was hearing jets flying overhead, but it turned out to be the water." By sheer luck she landed near the top of a mango tree, but now wonders how she can go on. "I can't tell you how much I miss them."

And Banda Aceh appears to be recovering well compared to outlying communities on Sumatra's northwest coast. As dignitaries flocked to the regional capital of Aceh province, helicopter crews returning from aid drops along the sea reported villagers rushing their aircraft as they neared the ground, desperate for food and water. Keith Ursel, a Winnipegger working in Banda Aceh for the UN's World Food Programme, said there are now fears the damage reaches further south than originally thought, all the way to the village of Singkil, some 500 km from the island's northern tip. "We're just starting now to set up a base of operations in that area."

The obstacles to bringing Aceh-level assistance to those areas are daunting - winding roads, washed-out bridges and a paucity of landing strips. But if Nurmiah Ali's sentiments are any indication, a simple desire to help goes a long way. The food, water and shelter arriving from abroad are appreciated, she says, and everyone knows which countries are giving. When asked if outsiders could do anything else to ease her suffering, she pauses a moment, then nods. "That mass funeral I talked about," she says quietly. "If you really want to make us feel better, you could pay for that."

CHARLIE GILLIS

AID WORKERS AMID THE HORROR

Martin McCann, 51, program director (international headquarters) for Foster Parents Plan, in Jakarta, Indonesia

"A lot of the challenge for this disaster is coordination. I have been attending briefings from the UN to the donor community, meetings with government officials, people from UNICEF, to divide up the work, and meetings with other NGOs to see how we can support one another. There has been a bit of a scramble, but we had to start doing things right away.

One problem we've faced is that some areas are completely wiped out. We didn't even know how badly because there was no one to tell us. I was speaking today with an old friend who is working very hard in Aceh, but her whole home community just doesn't exist anymore. In her extended family, she figures she has lost about 20 people. She is the sort of person who would be very key in this situation, but she's somewhat distraught. It's only bit by bit that we're getting the full picture. I mean, there are 100,000 dead. What that means is, we have counted 100,000 bodies. How many more have been washed out to sea?

On the one hand, it's a luxury, being at a distance. I can go to an air-conditioned meeting and discuss charts and numbers. But on the other hand, it's frustrating to not be right there. I realize that's almost an immature feeling, but there's always a part of you that wishes you could actually help directly. I've spent seven years of my life in Indonesia; I have an extraordinarily deep affection for the people of this country. I think I'm not all that different from a lot of Canadians who are probably feeling the same sense of, 'What can I do?'"

See also FOREIGN AID.

Maclean's January 17, 2005