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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 January, 2005, 12:19 GMT
Divisions hinder Indonesia's aid relief
By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Banda Aceh, Indonesia

Indonesian soldiers say their tsunami relief work in the province of Aceh is being hindered by clashes with the rebels who have been fighting a bitter separatist conflict. The rebels in turn accuse the military of using the disaster as a pretext for a renewed offensive.

Trucks dump bodies into mass grave
Indonesian soldiers have a new task - disposing of the dead

I counted more than 60 bodies packed in a mass of floating debris in the river below me.

And I did not know what to think any more.

Each one was so grossly bloated it bore no resemblance to the human being it had once been.

Squads of Indonesian soldiers moved around in rubber dinghies, hooking the corpses with ropes and pulling them back to the bank, where they were packed into body bags.

At least they had body bags now, a few days earlier they had simply been leaving them uncovered in rows beside the road.

They did their work quietly, and they were watched by a silent crowd on the bridge.

And then I looked again, and I saw one of the corpses was wearing a bra.

It was someone's mother, sister or wife.

And another, smaller, was in a striped t-shirt and underpants, somebody's daughter.

And I could not look anymore.

Nor could some of the bystanders on the bridge. Nearly everyone here has lost numbers of close relatives.

Really lost them.
This was a natural phenomenon so brutally destructive it almost seems evil

Huge loss

They are probably dead, but their bodies are among the piles that are being dumped into mass graves outside the town, or crushed under mounds of concrete and mud, or floating in the river.

They will never be identified, never properly buried, just mourned without ceremony by survivors too shocked to make sense of their loss.

How are we supposed to report a human tragedy of this magnitude?

The words and phrases used to capture the scale of previous disasters seem hopelessly inadequate this time.

And there is no one to blame, no failures to rectify that could prevent a recurrence.

This was a natural phenomenon so brutally destructive it almost seems evil.

Scene of devastation in Aceh
Some parts of Aceh have been literally flattened by the disaster

Standing on the bridge and staring out at the mangled, foul-smelling mess of upturned cars and smashed fishing boats, and rubble stretching for miles, in what had once been a substantial neighbourhood, I found myself unable to imagine the power of something that could do all this, nor the terror of the people caught up in it.

You can see all the detritus, the evidence of once normal lives.

Shoes, clothes, plates, toothbrushes, photographs, torn and tossed together in a ghastly grey wasteland.

It seems so appallingly unfair.

Conflict and trauma

Aceh had already been dealt a lousy hand before the disaster, its people caught in a vicious war between separatist rebels and the Indonesian army.

It was a conflict the world took little notice of, even though thousands were killed.

Sealed off from help by martial law, Aceh is one of the poorest regions of Indonesia, ill-prepared to deal with destruction on this scale.

Countless Acehenese, I have spoken to, have asked what they could have done to offend God.

These are, for the most part, devout Muslims. But nothing in their religion explains the suffering they have had to endure.

The world is here now.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Colin Powell, has visited areas ravaged by the tsunami

No one wants to miss the chance to take part in the most dramatic natural disaster of modern times , one day US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the next UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The Acehenese have never experienced such international scrutiny before.

Everywhere the TV crews scour the faces of the displaced in search of the personal tragedies that will bring the scale of this disaster home to their viewers.

You do not have to look far.

Every face tells a story, some so harrowing you wonder how these people have kept their wits.

Some have not.

Trauma is etched in the hollow eyes of many victims.

They are also bewildered by the relief effort, no one has ever cared about them before

The Acehenese are proud of their defiant history, fighting long wars against the Dutch, the Japanese and now the government in Jakarta, for more independence.

They have learnt to bear their suffering well, but I have just had a 56 year-old man sobbing uncontrollably in my arms, after telling me about his two sons, both missing, almost certainly among the countless unnamed corpses.

They are also bewildered by the relief effort, no one has ever cared about them before.

Certainly not their own government, which has sanctioned the harshest tactics by Indonesian soldiers to suppress their separatist dreams.

The temporary camps that have been established in almost every school, mosque or building are largely run by the displaced inhabitants themselves, with modest help from Indonesian volunteer groups.

They seem astonished to hear that so many people in the rest of the world want to help.

'Long-term presence'

But just how far is our commitment to the people of Aceh going to go?

We, the news media, will be gone in a couple of weeks.

And if the Indonesian government re-imposes its ban on foreign journalists, we will not be back.

Devastation in Banda Ache following the Asian tsunami
Recovery from the devastating tsunami will take years

The UN and the aid agencies say they must be allowed a long-term presence to help get Aceh back on its feet, but that still depends heavily on the co-operation of the Indonesian military, which really runs this province.

That co-operation could come at a price, of funds siphoned off, of soldiers directing the flow of aid away from areas considered sympathetic to the rebels.

The army's presence here is strikingly visible. Already there are signs they are moving in to control the relief effort.

That is not to say the aid workers are not making a difference.

After a shaky start, life saving assistance is getting through to tens of thousands of victims, often through superhuman efforts.

But when I tell the Acehenese the international community is going to help them get their lives back together, they ask me when.

Who is going to give them the money to rebuild their houses, their shops and fishing boats, who should they ask.

And I tell them to be patient, it will come.

But knowing Aceh's wretched history of war, abuse and corruption, I cannot be sure that even now, they will not be disappointed.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 January, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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