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Last Updated: Monday, 10 January, 2005, 14:29 GMT
Diary: Awesome task in Sumatra
Howard Arfin is a volunteer and international delegate for the Canadian Red Cross.

He has been helping bury the dead and supplying aid for survivors on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. He reports on his experiences in the first of a series of diary entries for the BBC News website.

7 January 2005

Two cruel facts make this disaster response different from all the calamities I've worked on until now.

Indonesian volunteers collect dead bodies from Banda Aceh, a city in northern Sumatra
The collection of bodies goes on but the focus is moving to the living
First, the scale of this tragedy is challenging our skills like never before. Second, the impact on our own Red Cross people here in Indonesia is just heart-breaking.

Our frustrations are palpable. Here we are as Red Cross workers on the front lines, coping with the consequences of this tragedy in every affected country.

We have this huge pool of talented delegates and a support structure that brings help to victims of natural and man-made strife everywhere that we're needed.

The generosity of Canadians and thoughtful citizens around the world is making it possible for us to mobilise an unprecedented emergency relief operation.

On the island of Sumatra, the logistical barriers are making our job really tough.

The roads we would normally use to truck thousands of tons of food, medicine and temporary shelters are obliterated. Where there were paved roads and bridges, now there's only rubble and mud.

Where there were harbours to offload from ships, now there's only sand and stumps.

In the last few days, the support of military resources from many countries - mostly helicopters deployed from ships - are helping us with the positioning of water purification units and medical supplies.

We've also decided to send truck convoys from the eastern Sumatra city of Medan to Meulaboh on the west coast, over the mountain chain that splits the island in two.

This is a slow, steep and arduous journey, and the road is narrow and difficult on the other side, but at least it's a supply delivery route we can take.

Meanwhile, local Red Cross volunteers continue to locate and remove bodies from the ruins of shattered homes.

'Selfless commitment'

This task becomes ever more gruesome as time goes by and the natural decomposition process of the corpses continues.

What tears my heart out is the fact that many of our volunteers have themselves lost family members.

Like Red Cross branches everywhere, these good folk live in the towns and villages where they do their community work. And still they are performing the jobs they were trained to do, burying bodies and distributing emergency relief from local disaster preparedness stocks.

Over the years, I have worked side by side with Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but never before have I experienced this level of selfless commitment.

In the last few days, we have finally started to make some meaningful progress.

An aerial photo of a devastated coastline in northern Sumatra
Sumatran infrastructure was devastated by the tsunami waves
Three Red Cross mobile water purification units have been successfully deployed, one on the northeast coast at Samalanga, one at Banda Aceh on the northern tip of the island, and the third in the town of Meulaboh on the west coast.

Meulaboh is one of the hardest-hit places, located within just a few kilometres of the quake's epicentre.

Two-thirds of the town was destroyed, resulting in great loss of life. The hospital sits on high ground, but most of its doctors and nurses were lost in the great wave.

For the past three days, we have been processing 75,000 litres of water per day in Meulaboh and using the town's six remaining tanker trucks to deliver safe drinking water to four temporary settlement camps, including the football stadium, and to outlying areas.

Doctors from the Japanese Red Cross are working round the clock with Indonesian doctors from Jakarta treating wounds that have been festering since the tidal wave struck.

We are facing an awesome challenge in the days and weeks ahead as our attention turns from burying the dead to caring for the living.

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