Relief workers in Indonesia tackle bottlenecks to aid

Indonesia's rugged terrain, downed bridges, and the sheer volume of aid are slowing supply distribution.

The airplane hangar at Medan's Polonia airport was piled high with boxes of instant noodles, rice, and drinking water Sunday, while relief volunteers and French fire fighters idled nearby, waiting to be flown to disaster-struck areas. The food was destined for hungry tsunami victims, cut off by destroyed roads and bridges and waiting for help.

"A lot of help can't get in or out," says Rizal Nordin, governor of North Sumatra and the local head of the provincial disaster task force team. "Transport is our biggest problem."

A massive relief and food distribution network being assembled, which will link international agencies to tsunami victims, is facing bottlenecks at key points - such as at Medan Airport. But Sunday food aid stockpiled at the airport had started to flow, relief workers say, a week after the Dec. 26 tsunami struck

The obstacles highlight the sheer scale of this international relief effort - said to be the largest of its kind in history - under way across six countries from Somalia in Africa to Sri Lanka in South Asia. The US has increased its contribution to the disaster relief effort to $350 million. Japan has increased its pledge to $500 million. More than $2 billion has been promised in emergency aid.

Indonesia, with at least 80,000 dead and up to one million homeless, is the worst hit. Its problems are a microcosm of managing the giant program. The Indonesian government and military, US Navy, and international agencies are now racing to stave off outbreaks of hunger and diseases such as cholera in distant areas still cut off from communication.

Some displaced people Sunday took comfort in the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of Banda Aceh. But others have complained that relief efforts have been slow to reach them. "Why are you giving us so little [rice]?" hungry victims asked Indonesian Social Affairs Minister Bachtiar Chamysah after his visit to a town where some 20,000 are thought to be dead.

Most of the northwest coast of Aceh province, the hardest-hit area is barricaded by a mountain range and cut off from supply overland, with bridges, roads, and harbors destroyed by the earthquake that triggered the tsunami. Relief workers, such as US Marines, must rely on expensive helicopters to drop food to afflicted cities. Stockpiles similar to the one in Medan have been accumulating in other cities.

"The whole humanitarian effort is really only just getting going now," said Mike Huggins, a spokesman for the World Food Program, on Saturday. Specialists in assessing the human impact of disasters from organizations such as the International Red Cross, say the lack of access was making planning almost impossible in towns such as Meulaboh on Aceh's West Coast.

The delays have been frustrating to volunteers such as Djumiati, who is leading a team of Muslim nurses to staff hospitals in afflicted cities. Djumiati and a 16-woman team of nurses had been waiting, stranded for 24 hours. "We just can't wait any longer," said Monica Tanuhandaru, an aid worker from Jakarta and volunteer, by telephone from a private car en route to Aceh's capital city. "Every minute could mean hundreds of lives," she said.

Although Indonesia has set up a command structure that connects most of the government, from the president down to field units, coordination so far has often been poor.

As of Sunday, several government officials were unaware of the chain of command structure, including those dealing with foreign agencies. Many Indonesian government departments are not used to working closely or with such a sense of urgency.

Mike Griffiths, an Australian conservationist and volunteer, with more than 10 years experience in Sumatra says the military culture following 26 years of conflict between the government and separatist rebels had impeded early efforts. "In a few days, they changed a whole culture of xenophobia into openness. They deserve credit for that."

Veterans of disaster relief say that it often takes days for major relief operations to get under way. Jurgen Weyland, a member of the International Federation of the Red Cross, says it was "normal" to see early delays and bureaucratic hurdles.

Mr. Weyland, who in a 35-year career has seen relief operations in the Peruvian mountains and in Bangladesh in the 1970s, says the Indonesian government had a "better-than-average" capacity for disaster relief due to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Andi Hanindito, one of the first Indonesian disaster management specialists says that the carnage in Aceh was simply beyond their imagination or capabilities. "One command, one rule, one corps," he says, pointing to his jacket's slogan at a makeshift office in a tent. "We're not really there yet."

Mr. Hanindito predicts it will take at least three months to secure afflicted communities from hunger and disease. According to the UN, efforts could take much longer, up to a year, involving a million people in Aceh alone.

Indeed, some Indonesian officials are more fearful of the next year than the next week. With most of Aceh's urban infrastructure destroyed, Indonesia faces a daunting task in sustaining both the provincial and displaced people.

Salih Muhammad, an Australian convert to Islam, waits at Medan Airport for a flight to search for his lost wife and child. He says they both probably "martyred" in the waves. "They'll be waiting for me at the gates of heaven," he says.

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