On the job: damp tents, 20-hour days
Three aid workers - Indonesian, American, Irish - are buoyed by the courage of survivors as they help in the recovery.
BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA — Slathered in bug repellent and sunscreen, they work around the clock in crisis conditions. They catch brief snatches of sleep on cots or sleeping pads surrounded by mosquito netting. Outside their tents, the air is a blast furnace; inside, it's a humidified oven. Torrential rain that arrives like clockwork each afternoon turns the ground into calf-deep mud stew. Formal showers are unheard of and toilet facilities are crude, if they exist.
Compared with the plight of those who lost everything here in Banda Aceh, the circumstances of these relief workers are hardly dire. But the relentless pressures of their 20-hour days does raise the question: Who signs up for this?
As seen through the stories of three aid workers in the immediate aftermath of one of the world's worst disasters, the answers were remarkably similar. Moving forward despite occasional fear, loneliness, and feeling overwhelmed, they say they want to be at the center of the effort to help.
Tracked over several days, each working in a different venue of Banda Aceh's post-tsunami confusion, the narratives of the three - American, Irish, and Indonesian - provide windows into the motivations and challenges of those thousands on the ground who put their own lives on hold and on the line to save and restore others. They are buoyed, they say, by the courage of those they are serving and seek their own growth in spirit by connecting to a larger cause.
"I feel like I am getting the most out of my life," says Kirsten Gelsdorf, humanitarian-affairs officer for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The seven-year veteran of similar operations in Liberia, Zambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Kenya arrived one week after the wave hit, and says that at the one-month mark, in late January, she is hitting her stride.
"The people who do this are tackling the most serious, complex problems under high pressure and solving them because of incredible presence of mind they have developed over years," she says, sitting on a brown sofa at a small compound known as the Humanitarian Information Center (HIC). "Being here is challenge, excitement, and privilege all in one."
Ms. Gelsdorf was hospitalized with malaria after a stint in Liberia when the tsunami hit. She called her office and was on a plane to Banda Aceh two days later.
Now, she sits at the communications and logistical crossroads of dozens of aid organizations. Small, large, and in-between - doctors, water experts, sanitation workers, and more - the groups arrive in town, visit HIC for standardized assessment forms, and fan out across Sumatra.
Gelsdorf is tracking which organizations are here, where they are working, and what they are finding. Her job is fourfold: coordination, information gathering, advocacy and problem solving.
Once the big picture becomes clearer - what kind of aid workers are available and where - Gelsdorf turns to micromanagement. "If their speciality is water, then [we ask], are they able to do latrines and toilets or just water purification and delivery, or what," she says. "The planning and logistics are endless."
Gelsdorf arrives at her desk inside the HIC compound at 7 a.m., and works until at least 9 p.m., often longer. One day is filled with meetings with arriving nongovernmental organizations; another is spent in four-wheel-drive vehicles visiting IDP (internally displaced persons) camps across the region. Gelsdorf must bring together workers from UNICEF, the World Food Program, OCHA, and others to map where the camps are - often using satellite coordinates. With so many groups representing different countries and languages, the challenge is compounded by the frequent use of different names for the same camps.
As she bounced along a rural road at dusk, on her way back to base camp one day, Gelsdorf says it hit her why she chose this life. "I'm in one of the most remote, exotic places on earth, on the front lines of a disaster of unspeakable proportions helping human beings in a situation that the rest of the world can only watch," she says.
Gelsdorf does not shrug off the consequences of her decision. "My friends are back in America getting married and having babies and buying homes and apartments," says Gelsdorf, who, at 30, has not signed a lease anywhere in six years of globetrotting. "I won't do this forever, but for now it's the most exciting thing I can imagine."
Arista Idris, a Jakarta-based Indonesian working for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has similar motives. A longtime journalist, Ms. Idris says she became disillusioned with both newspapering and politics during the economic crisis of 1998, when President Suharto fell. Looking for something more fulfilling and measurably practical, she became a press officer for the International Red Cross where she saw up close the yawning maw of daily needs. Three years ago, she joined the IOM - and says her involvement in hands-on assistance to those in need has transformed her.
"The more I see IDPs, and help them subsist and get back on their feet, the more I feel my own sense of compassion open and open and open," says Ms. Idris, sitting on the tile patio of IOM's Banda Aceh headquarters. She has been sleeping on a cot in a back office of the IOM compound, one of the few groups that had a presence in the area before the tsunami. She has left her husband, a doctor, back in Jakarta, but says he may move to Banda Aceh permanently because of a dire need for doctors.
For the past several weeks she has led a daily convoy of aid trucks into the hills above Banda Aceh, helping small groups of villagers who have fled the tsunami, but who may not be aware of services available at larger IDP camps.
Wearing rubber boots and a backpack one Tuesday morning in late January, Idris jumps into a truck, which rambles slowly for nearly an hour through the wasteland of destroyed homes in the tsunami zone of Banda Aceh. With a handful of IOM volunteers on two open-topped trucks, she stops at various encampments, searching out orphans and others who have lost family members.
The goods they offer include bottled water, rice, noodles, and mosquito netting. Idris tries to discern how many displaced people are in the hills and informs them of how to get help for specific needs. One woman appears on a steep hill to announce, "We have too many babies." Another says the small community has enough rice and food, but really needs freshly cleaned women's undergarments.
At one stop, Idris consoles 8-year-old Tiara Rezapahlevi, who lost her mother and now lives with her grandmother, Marlian. Arista listens to survivors' stories, consoling and encouraging. "A lot of healing occurs," she says, "when a person can feel that others have heard what they have been through."
A mile from where Idris's convoy is cutting through the hills, Susan Lillicrap, who works for the Irish organization GOAL, is preparing to board a cargo boat for a 12-hour voyage south to Calang.
Ms. Lillicrap is a nurse and midwife who has been encouraged by local aid authorities to help administer measles vaccines to hundreds of children in the seaside village, which lost 11,000 of 14,000 residents in the tsunami.
Now 40, Lillicrap says she has been a disaster-relief aide for 15 years, fulfilling a childhood dream to help others. Arriving just days after hearing of the tsunami, Lilli- crap says the devastation in Banda Aceh is far greater than it appears on news reports. But since a lot of help has already arrived there, she feels the pull to assist in Calang.
"I'm keen to get out of these main areas to a place where there are fewer aid people, and we are needed more," she says.
She seems undaunted by the prospect of untold numbers of days sleeping in a tent near the beach in Calang, where almost no aid had arrived yet. She has packed only a tent, stove, and sleeping bag. Her meals will consist of Australian Army rations that the boat has requisitioned.
"I don't know where that motive [for aid work] came from. I've never been religious," says Lillicrap, wearing blue capris, a blue GOAL cap, and a black fanny pack. She stands on the dock next to the Sumber Rejeki Baru, the vessel she will board with one GOAL colleague, an engineer. "I just love being around people and seeing how they deal with crisis and how much resilience they have themselves," she says.
Still, before boarding, she is both upbeat and apprehensive. "This will be important, but hard," she says. "I assume it will be lifechanging, something I will never forget. I probably won't enjoy it while I'm doing it, but afterward I will be glad."
Five days later, Lillicrap is operating from her new base: a small tent on the beach in Calang. Outside the tent is her "office": a table ringed with five makeshift chairs cut out of coconut tree trunks.
She has administered more than 500 measles vaccinations to kids in a tent in Calang that is set up to act as a school. The children lined up for vaccination after Indonesian military officials went into the hills and used loudspeakers to encourage them to come out.
"The kids whined a bit, but the older ones had to tough it out because the younger ones were watching," she says, laughing. Her observation is common among aid workers: that the resilience of children - inventing games with sticks, creating communities of instant playmates - helps adults to cope.
The low point, she says, was sleeping next to a rat on the boat; the high point, working with four Indonesian nurses. She says she gets up at 5 a.m., pours a bottle of water over her head, eats an Army meal (beef satay is tops) and gets going.
"The worst part is not having a proper chair," she says, and "lying on the tent floor for a week." A comfy chair "would be nice."
Back in Banda Aceh on a rainy afternoon, Gelsdorf is discussing her work. "[Sometimes, afterward] I realize how unfair life can be, that one person has lost their home, sister, son, and father and is trying to cope, while another person across the world is sitting, thinking, 'What does it matter? That's not me or anyone I know. What can I do about it?' Complacency should be carefully thought over, because it can be a horrible weapon against someone you have never met."
As she speaks, Patrick Webb, a senior staffer with WFP who happens to have been Gelsdorf's professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., walks by. He can't resist chiming in.
"The bottom line is ... we should not accept the privilege of giving up," he says. "These people show us what humanity is all about.... This is what I have learned in 20 years of doing this: that the survivors don't give up. We have no right to, either."
• Last in a series. Parts 1 and 2 ran on Feb. 1 and Feb. 4, 2005.