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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January 2005, 15:20 GMT
Aceh aid prompts rival concerns

By Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Jakarta

In the first few days after the huge earthquake and tsunami struck Indonesia on 26 December, the people of Aceh struggled on their own.

The outside world was slow to wake up to the magnitude of the disaster, and in any case most international aid organisations had been banned from the province because of a conflict between Indonesian security forces and separatist rebels.

The central government admits that its initial response was to panic.

Member of the hard-line Muslim group FPI, after helping rescue works for tsunami victims, 13 January 2005.
Islamic groups have provided much of the aid in Aceh
But once the scale of the disaster became clear, both Indonesians and foreigners began to mobilise.

As the relief effort increased, so too did the number of organisations pouring into the province - each with their own aid, expertise, and, it has been alleged, special interests.

The Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, an Islamic political group that did well in last year's parliamentary elections, was among the first to get aid into the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

Bags of rice, branded with the PKS insignia, tents and medicine are now being flown in on a regular basis on a specially chartered aeroplane.

Party officials have also said they are trucking in supplies every night from the city of Medan, across the provincial border.

Syahil, the coordinator of the PKS relief operation in Aceh, estimated that there were already 1,500 party volunteers working in the province.

"The enthusiasm of people is more than we expected, and it hasn't shown any sign of decreasing. As long as we are needed, we will stay," he said.


The humanitarian motivation behind the PKS effort is no doubt genuine. But there is equally no denying that it is good politics as well.

Aceh was always among the most conservatively Muslim areas of Indonesia, and elements of Sharia law are now practiced in the province - making it a natural PKS recruiting ground.

It's natural that people want to come and help. But soon we should be able to turn down their help because I think we have enough people
Taufik Abdullah, Nadhlathul Ulama
Members of the more radical Indonesian Mujahideen Council, which wants to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia, have also been active since the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Council members are reportedly offering what they call "spiritual guidance and strength" to survivors, along with the food and clothes they are distributing.

For its part, the Islamic Defenders Front, an extremist group which in the past has smashed up bars and cafes serving alcohol, sees one of its primary roles as monitoring the behaviour of the thousands of foreigners now in Aceh.

The group has sent volunteers to the province, principally to help retrieve dead bodies, but also to keep a close eye on Westerners, whom they say may be trying to import more than just humanitarian aid.

Farid Safri, the Front's co-ordinator for Aceh, said that while foreign help was welcome, there should be a time limit.

"We have to be careful," he said. "Maybe there are weapons packed in the aid boxes. And the Americans on their ship offshore, they usually have prostitutes on board, so we can't have them around for too long."

Thankful Indonesian tsunamis disaster victims shake hands with US soldiers, 14 Jan
Some Muslim groups are worried about the presence of Westerners
Even Indonesia's largest and most widely-respected Muslim grouping, Nadhlathul Ulama, harbours some suspicions about the large international presence which has built up in Aceh.

"Those people might have other missions," said Taufik Abdullah, the man in charge of the group's relief effort.

"It's natural that people want to come and help, and we really appreciate it. But soon we should be able to turn down their help because I think we have enough people," he said.

Suffering continues

There is a mix of both paranoia and pride behind these sentiments.

Muslim groups in particular are worried that Christian-based aid organisations might start trying to convert grateful survivors.

The military is worried that a long-term foreign presence might hinder its ability to conduct operations against the rebels.

Some nationalist politicians feel that Indonesia should follow India's example and look after itself without outside assistance.

But most ordinary Indonesians are simply focusing on the human suffering and wondering what they can do to help.

The pictures and stories that have emerged from this catastrophe have stunned the nation, as they have the rest of the world.

An Acehnese man squats in front of houses destroyed by tsunami Monday, Jan. 17, 2005
The Acehnese people will need help for a long time to come
Every day the most dramatic, graphic images are repeated on local television, often in slow motion to a background of heart-rending music.

TV and radio stations are still running special programmes to raise funds, as well as broadcasting appeals for information about people who are missing.

In many office buildings there are collection points where people can leave food and clothing.

Hundreds of local NGOs are involved in independent efforts to get aid into Aceh.

The religious and political leaders may be concerned about who gives what kind of aid and for how long.

But the general public seems to accept that Aceh needs help now, and it will need help for a long time to come, both from home and abroad.

Harrowing scenes of the tsunami striking Aceh



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