Journal from the Ground
12:30am. I was still on and off sleeping when we were already on
Seulawah region. Seulawah is a major mountain in Aceh dividing Pidie and
Aceh Besar. Along the road rain comes and goes like before. We saw
trucks and heavy equipment heading for Banda Aceh. Everybody is
exhausted but we have to go ahead as there are no motels and inns
available along the way from Sigli to Banda Aceh.
7:35am. Last night my brother slept on plastic mats on the second floor with about eleven other volunteers, including Joy who slept on the second floor of the women’s section. My friends offer that I can stay on the third floor, but with a reminder that we still feel quakes quite often. No thank you. I choose to sleep in a tent available in front of the post. My other friends sharing ride from Medan chose to accept the offer of our driver. This time all of us coming back home to find ourselves have no place to sleep. What an irony! A bitter contrast to our experience before when we could have chosen to sleep in many places around Banda Aceh, either at relatives or friends.
I met two male volunteers from Pakistan who apparently stayed at the third floor of the command post. They came downstairs in their traditional night apparel to use the bathrooms in the first and second floor. The two guys are from Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation which has offices in Pakistan, UK, and in Corona, NY. Faisal Edhi, the vice chairman used to reside in NY and his brother lives is in Florida. The other one is Fauzi who speaks no English. They need a ride to catch a flight at the airport or a bus to go to Medan. They had tried to explain to our local volunteers but failed due to language barrier. And here they are in battered Banda Aceh among the young Acehnese volunteers who barely speak English. What brings these people together? People solidarity! Faisal felt released to know my being there to help out. I don’t intend to be a translator, but everybody needs to do everything they can in this suddenly internationalized city of Banda Aceh.
They asked me to find a flight to Medan, take them to airport or, if there is no flight, take them to the nearest bus terminal. Despite my recent arrival, I’d already learned that finding a flight from Banda Aceh’s tiny airport or a seat on the bus from anywhere-possible bus terminal is really a matter of luck. Nevertheless, I called some numbers I know to find out and made the two gentlemen happy and have some optimism in the morning to begin the day. It would have been wonderful to have more Joy-like volunteers who you can rely on being independent enough to go solo on many things in such a difficult situation in Aceh. I know for sure that the two guys also came sincerely to help. In fact, they told me that they need to fly to Medan to buy more supplies so they can send them soon to PCC and fly to Jakarta and back to Pakistan afterward to raise more aid for Aceh (Two days after that, they sent 5 tons of rice, 500 kg of green beans, and 2,5 tons sugar from Medan to PCC command post to be distributed to the quake and tsunami victims).
8:10am. Command Post became more crowded as more people arrived. People reported their missing family members or the presence of internally displaced persons (IDP) at their homes or villages. Some came to directly ask for aid supplies. PCC volunteers take note on all information. This data is then typed into electronic files using Microsoft Excel. IDPs information is then used when distributing aid supplies and mobile clinics provisions.
8:20am. Volunteers start rationing aid supplies according to reported household number and number of people in non-camp shelters. Based on age of IDPs reported, they also decide whether to include baby or children supplies. With a rented pick-up, PCC deliver 5-6 pick-up loads of aid supplies each day to places around Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar which are usually not served by camp/shelter-based services. I have been hearing and seeing that some families returned to the official shelters (from their relatives’ places) to be able to receive aid supplies. My sister and her family who survived the wave, for example, have been to a “formal” shelter. Fearing the poor condition for kids, however, they decided to move out of the shelter and take refuge with her husband’s distant relative. Consequently, they lost their chance to get aid supplies that are usually distributed only to formal shelters. In another case, my uncle (whom I met at my sister’s in-laws place in Glumpang Minyeuk -- see January 08 journal), told us that night that there were more than 30 persons of his wife’s relatives staying at the in laws’, but decided to go back to a shelter they had been in before in Mata Ie at the outskirt of Banda Aceh (about 125 kms from Glumpang Minyeuk). They said “We will not get aid supplies if we do not stay in a shelter.” So, they decided to go back to the shelter with all their kids. People staying at their relatives also fear disturbing and inconveniencing their hosts.
8:35am. I decided to take the two Pakistani guys to the airport with a pick up truck rented with CNY Aceh Relief Fund. The pick-up truck has been used to deliver aid supplies everyday, beginning three days before I arrived after I agreed to rent it when I called our contacts in Medan and Aceh. We find the two “volunteers” transportation to Medan or else they might become more of a liability to my folks at PCC who wanted to help but could not due to language barrier. After all, any guest is to be taken really good care of for at least three days in Acehnese culture. And we need to do it before the pick-up truck begins its daily delivery function. I needed at least ten minutes of re-adjustment to familiarize myself again with a manual shift and right-side steering wheel position of the car. The two guests from Pakistan seem to be worried about my driving skills. Well, I just landed two nights ago from the US and have barely had any sleep, Sirs! But then we were soon on the road to the airport.
9:05am. Faisal managed to get a commercial flight. Maybe there were no VIP (Very Important Persons) or VVIP (Very, Very Important Persons) coming to Banda Aceh that day, I thought. The airport was not as crowded as I’d been informed. I’d been hearing that the tiny airport of Sultan Iskandar Muda (a name of a famous Acehnese sultan), in Blang Bintang (literally “Farm of Stars”), was jammed by many national and international planes. Things become worse when high ranking officials visit Aceh for “need assessments” or “coordination”. When that happens, many other flights are delayed or cancelled. Even the very important aid workers are badly needed in Banda Aceh! Media suggests these people are “political” or “celebrity” volunteers. This makes many real, hard-working, grassroots, die-hard volunteers hate the words “need assessment” and “coordination” and other fancy jargon even more.
Faisal seems very happy and thankful. He wrote down my cell number and gave me his. He promised that all aid to be sent to PCC will be delivered as soon as possible and he will let me know of any updates on their effort to help Aceh and the Acehnese. After saying goodbye to each other, I drove back to Banda Aceh (about 15 kms from the airport). On the way, I saw Lambaro, a village just off the main Medan-Banda Aceh road which connects the city with the airport had become more crowded. Not only are there many victims and volunteer camps and shelters, but its market had become the substitute market for many surviving Banda Aceh dwellers and visitors. Lambaro has also been famous for being the site of mass-graves for corpses collected in Banda Aceh. It is just about 6 kms from Banda Aceh.
9:50am. When I arrived back at the PCC command post, I saw its office and warehouse were more crowded and busy. I also saw some friends, locals and internationals alike, around our post. The post has apparently been a starting point for everyday activities for many of them, including journalists, academicians, and international volunteers. This might be due to the very active role played by PCC folks in many areas of Acehnese humanitarian works.
10:10am. No breakfast has been available at the post. Volunteers grabbed anything available around them. They ate left over cookies and biscuits from deliveries. Somebody prepared coffee for everybody. Joy, our nurse who originally comes from Guyana, was already impatient to start her work. “When are we going to the shelters?,” she asked repeatedly. “I want to treat those wounded and sick people I saw on TV!” she kept telling me. Coincidently, there were sick people, including kids, in Lembah Hijau of Lam Cot as reported by our delivery volunteers. These are 34 IDPs taking shelter in one house, supposedly a relative’s. Hmmm, we had medicine that I brought from Ithaca, an experienced nurse from London, and a rented minibus from Medan. “Joy, why don’t you prepare the medicine? You’ll go with two Acehnese volunteers to a house about 3 kms from here where some people are sick,” I told Joy my sudden but common sense plan. Joy appeared to be very happy and excited. Soon, she, an Indonesian doctor, a male nurse and interpreter who had offered their help since the morning they saw Joy, were busy choosing medicine supplies. I assigned two Acehnese volunteers at our post to accompany them. And that how our first mobile clinic started!
I already ate one energy bar I brought from Ithaca. Thank you Mas Yoyok for choosing the bars so I could manage my first morning. I gave one bar to my brother and enjoyed it with bottled water. The bar is really handy, but I don’t think it will stand up to replacing three regular meals as you said, Mas! Ha…ha..ha… (I felt really hungry by late afternoon of that first yet very hectic day in Banda Aceh.)
We might have chosen a wrong time to visit the hot, humid and now salted
place destroyed by tsunami waves. Mid-day temperature might have been
34-36 centigrade (80’s F). But we were there, and we wanted to see our
home no matter how it looked. We saw some people, including some
familiar faces trying to save anything possible from their destroyed
houses. Many of them were exploring places with minimal or no protection
at all. Some people were already starting to collect usable waste like
aluminum scraps despite the dead bodies that were still found here and
From the second floor, I went down through half broken wooden stairs to
the ground floor. The outside walls of the ground floor are gone. But
inside walls connecting the extension ground floor to the dining room
and the bathroom were still there. I found two dead bodies on the
falling apart ground floor. One was female, just under the wooden
stairs, one was male, right on the doorway to the bathroom. The big
bathroom was full of debris. I called my brother telling of the two
corpse there. “Could it be our missing sister and brother, or my brother
in law? And where is my niece, Aiza’s, body?” I wondered. My brother
stood next to the debris outside and said “But Murni said they were
already outside the house when the wave came. Those corpses might be
other people swept by the wave to our house.” Murni is our surviving
sister. “Are you sure she said that?” I wanted a confirmation. “That’s
what she said,” replied my brother. “Did Murni really see them?” I asked
again. “Well…I don’t know. She said she did not see them anymore when
they were running for their lives. But she said that they were already
out of our house.”
2:05pm. The car was still not there yet. I am feeling my uncovered arms
was being burnt by the heat of the sun combined with the humid air full
of evaporated salted water and mud. The high humidity like that usually
precedes the coming of rain. But the sky was still so clear and the sun
was so bright. We observed some people trying to salvage scrapped
motorbikes and destroyed cars. Some others were collecting aluminum
scraps to be sold by its weight. I heard people can get about 8000
rupiahs (about 90 cents) for a kilo of aluminum scraps in Banda Aceh.
But the price for the same thing is double in Medan where an
aluminum-bauxite plant is. I told my brother my plan to take Murni to
try to recognize the two corpses in our destroyed house.
2:40pm. We were back to the post. PCC volunteers were still busy loading
and unloading supplies. They unloaded supplies into the warehouse from
trucks coming from Medan or other places. Some load selected supplies to
smaller pick up trucks to go around Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar district
to distribute the supplies to houses where IDPs are. It started raining.
Still, the volunteers continue the loading process. Some with raincoats,
some not. I looked and asked around to find out where Joy was. I found
Taufik who left with Joy, the doctor and the male nurse who traveled
together in the mobile clinic team. He told me that they had visited two
houses and they examined 11 sick IDPs including some kids at Lembah
Hijau. And that Joy had gone with the doctor and the male paramedics
(not nurse as mentioned before). Taufik said that the doctor and the
paramedics are from a Christian mission operating on the other side on