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Tsunami report from John Prior, SVD-Indonesia

I live in Flores, eastern Indonesia, some 3,000 kilometres from the earth/sea quake that hit Aceh, North Sumatra and Nias Island on 26th December last. I do not need to paint a graphic picture; you have seen those on your electronic media. I shall not even give you human interest stories; you already have seen and heard of personal and family tragedies and the occasional miracle survival. Allow me, two weeks after the horrific disaster, to make the following points.

1. Twelve years ago we in Flores suffered a tectonic quake (6.7 on the Richter scale) and tsunami wave (December 1992). It was traumatic with 2,600 killed, but on a scale far less than that which has hit western Indonesia (8.9 on the Richter scale) and a half-dozen countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Africa - where the total death rate has already exceeded 150,000 and continues to rise. Today, 9th January 2005, the total dead in Indonesia has reached 104,000. Others are still unaccounted for. Some 380,000 are displaced and without an income. These are the official figures for Indonesia alone; the reality is almost certainly far grimmer.

2. For a couple of days after the earth/sea quake nobody knew the extent of the catastrophe because communications in Aceh had been cut - roads blocked and bridges down, but also telecommunication facilities knocked out, petrol stations unusable, vehicles swept out to sea. Communication had to be by air, that is, by helicopter because the airport at Meulaoh, the worst hit city, was badly damaged. Or by sea. Understandably, for a few days no ship would do the journey until the aftershocks decreased in intensity and fear of a follow-up tsunami wave receded. Jakarta is three jet hours away. Only in the past few days has an air corridor been opened up from nearby Malaysia.

3. The worst hit areas in Indonesia are the towns and villages along the West coast of Sumatra and the much smaller island of Nias. A largely Muslim community but with a significant Christian minority.

4. With over 100,000 bodies to dispose of, only half that number had been "buried" during the first two weeks, the rest are still rotting in the streets, or floating down rivers, or are under rubble. Yes, even two weeks after the catastrophe the stench of rotting bodies is overwhelming. That you cannot grasp through the electronic media You can imagine the fear of cholera, typhoid and other such diseases. The total dead could dramatically rise over the coming weeks if the remaining bodies are not disposed of and the survivors inoculated - and yes, supplied with drinking water and sufficient food.

5. Thus many bodies have been bulldozed into mass graves without identification or religious ritual. This will be traumatic for surviving relatives later for there will be no identification through photos etc. This might well also complicate compensation later, for little could be done to obtain proper evidence of who was killed. Government files and family records were destroyed in the surge. Over a dozen heads of local government (mayors) are still unaccounted for.

6. Immediate material aid is sufficient. Indeed it has been piling up at Medan airport and at military airports in Jakarta and elsewhere. Initially there were only two helicopters in operation. The immediate need is for distribution. Nine USA helicopter are now making frequent trips every day. Along with distribution there is need for medical volunteers, and also volunteers who can help the people with infrastructure rehabilitation. Clearly all outside help should collaborate with local people and locally-rooted organisations.

7. There are two complicating factors. Firstly, Aceh is the most Islamic of all districts in Indonesia with Syariah (Islamic) law in force. Christians in Jakarta and throughout Indonesia were immediate in their substantial and significant aid. Yes, 3,000 kilometres away, the goodwill and generosity of our economically-poor Catholic people in Flores is outstanding. But this has to be handled with great sensitivity. Christian volunteers are working alongside Muslim colleagues to avoid accusations of 'Christianisation'. This is "prophetic dialogue" in action.

8. The second complicating factor is that Aceh has been a war zone since the mid-1980s and therefore under the control of the army and police. Oil rich but economically poor Aceh has a longstanding independence movement. And this is a key dilemma: the armed forces have the logistics to open up roads and fly in essential food. And yet for over two decades they have faced the Acehnese as enemies rather than fellow Muslims, as rebels rather than fellow citizens. Soldiers who have been shooting "enemies" are now asked to feed them. You can imagine the psychological conflict on both sides. This partly explains the slow response of the government during the first week after the tragedy. Thus, voluntary assistance is important. Understandably, people are suspicious of the army.

9. Already there are clashes between the army and GAM (Achenese Independence Movement). The army is moving to coordinate all aid and restrict access everywhere outside the three larger towns. Overall coordination is vital - but not only under the Indonesian armed forces, but through a coalition with the Indonesian government, the UN and civil society.

10. Voluntary assistance via Mosques, Civil Society and the Churches is also important because we know that governments tend to use situations to their advantage. Food might well be used to "win hearts and minds" but perhaps also to punish Acehnese resistance fighters - as was done in East Timor in the late 1970s. The catastrophic humanitarian disaster is complicated by political resentment. It will be important to monitor aid: will "friends" be rewarded while "enemies" punished? The apostle Paul wrote: "If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink." (Rm 12:20).

11. Also, disasters in the past have become opportunities for removing indigenous people from their ancestral homes and opening the way for profitable conglomerates. No natural disaster remains purely natural for long.

12. The JPIC networks of the Indonesian Jesuits and Franciscans were cooperating with Muslim colleagues from day one. They are very much in touch regarding both humanitarian issues, human rights concerns and religious sensitivities. The Crisis Centre at the Bishops' Conference is collaborating with SEFA - a network of Muslim youth in Aceh with whom the Bishops' Centre has had contact over the years (assisting victims of the ongoing armed conflict). Padmaseputra, SJ, the Jakarta Cardinal's secretary, has been working from the SEFA office (sleeping on the floor) helping the youth with organisation. The Indonesian Bishops' Crisis Centre has opened a website to respond to the need for transparency and accountability. It can be accessed through http://www.pkr-kwi.mirifica.net. Plans are still short term - two-weeks at a time.

13. There is some evidence that global warming is not just bringing about climate change or raising the sea level but also warming, indeed even expanding, the tectonic plates on which we live. Unless global warming is slowed down and eventually reversed, we can expect more frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and on an increasingly vicious scale. Natural disasters are not purely natural. We have recently had a massive quake just off Flores (on Alor Island) and another in West Papua (Nabire). Throughout most of 2004 four of our Indonesian volcanoes were rumbling away including our local one in Maumere, Mount Egon. And now the catastrophe in Aceh.

14. The most vulnerable are the orphans. The need is for shelter, for schooling, for counselling. Thousands of teachers were victims. Also widows have lost their anchor in a patriarchal society and need to find strength in solidarity. Then there are the aged and the disabled who need hope and protection.

15. Alongside immediate aid comes the first stage of rehabilitation - housing, livelihood materials and the reviving of locally-based trades.


16. What can you do? Donations to pay for the transportation and distribution of food and medicine. Donations to pay for the volunteers who are taking aid to the survivors. The Divine Word Missionaries and Holy Spirit Sisters - among so many others - are sending sisters and seminarians - together with Muslim youth and under the aegis of Islamic organisations and NGOs - to distribute aid. Just as importantly they will listen to traumatised people and so help with counselling and start the process of rebuilding hope in a truly hopeless situation. Thirteen seminarians from Ledalero (Flores) are already undergoing intensive training in readiness to depart for Sumatra.

17. Also, keep your government on its toes - keep them to their promises of aid. Governments have short memories but the rebuilding will take five years at the very least. It took us 10 years to finish rebuilding our seminary in Flores. Watch how your government's aid is distributed and note who benefits. See what other interests are at work (Mobil-Exxon has big oil interests in Aceh.)

18. Become more ecologically aware and active. The USA has not yet signed the Kyoto Agreement. Push governments at local, regional and national levels to be more ecologically-sensitive. All of us can live more ecologically-friendly lives that do not over-heat the earth. This massive disaster gives us a chance to think about soil, about forests, about water, about food, about others - about love.

19. A final sermon: don't just send money to a charity; don't simply attend an aid concert. Don't simply open up your conscience to the victims and survivors. Yes, don't stop opening up your heart in prayer to God. But let us also act to reverse the policies, the lifestyles, the decisions that heat the earth with little regard for cooling and greening it. All of us have habits of living and thinking that are unhealthy, that heat the earth and enflame relationships to breaking point. Let us encourage each other and others to break bad habits and join in forming new ones.

John Mansford Prior, SVD,
Puslit Candraditya,
Jalan Lerowulan 1,
Wairklau-MAUMERE 86 112,
Email: johnotomo46@hotmail.com