- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The World Health Organization yesterday said the pipeline of medical aid to Indian Ocean tsunami victims is at risk of becoming clogged by an overflow of relief groups operating independently of each other.

“There are starting to be some reports of agencies encroaching upon other agencies,” said Dr. Ronald Waldman, WHO emergency-response coordinator.

Getting the more than 41 nongovernmental and international military medical teams to work on the same page is “like herding cats,” he said. A flood of agencies is still coming into the country, said Dr. Waldman, who added that his U.N. affiliate does not have the power to stop them.

“We have no more need for field hospitals here in Aceh, yet more continue to arrive,” he said, adding, “There will be frustration” among some agencies if they are not able to quickly set up when they get here.

However by some accounts, several villages and towns outside Banda Aceh still badly need medical aid. The Indonesian military yesterday dispatched a team of 15 doctors with the Pakistani army’s medical corps to open the first field hospital yesterday in Lammeulo, a hard-hit town south of the capital.

Several military field units, including ones from Australia and Malaysia have set up makeshift hospitals and operating rooms in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra, the westernmost island in the tropical Indonesian archipelago.

More than 100,000 people on Sumatra were killed by the Dec. 26 earthquake-fueled tsunami. Large, heavily populated sections of Banda Aceh were stripped bare by the massive wave, and other towns and cities on Sumatra were hit equally hard.

Relief workers say that Sumatra’s second-largest city Meulobah, situated on the southwestern side of the island, may have borne even more of the brunt of the tsunami than Banda Aceh. Roads and bridges connecting the capital to Meulobah and to other coastal towns were destroyed by the tsunami.

As a result, humanitarian aid has been able to reach some places only by helicopter. During the past two weeks, U.S. Navy helicopters have been ferrying aid and medical teams into remote areas.

In some cases, the helicopters are picking up badly injured people and bringing them to an Indonesian air base on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, which has emerged as the muddy and chaotic hub of the international relief effort.

Local and international aid organizations say the tsunami displaced 450,000 or more people in villages and cities stretching for miles along the north, west and southern coasts of Sumatra.

Officials now are faced with the task of organizing an unknown number of refugee camps that have sprung up across the region. The camps vary in size, holding anywhere from 50 to 2,500 people, from infants to the elderly.

Inside one camp yesterday, survivors of an all but destroyed section of Banda Aceh sat tiredly, wondering what their next move will be.

“I don’t know, I’ll stay here and wait and see if the government does anything,” said M. Hasan, a 50-year-old fisherman, who lost his wife and five of his eight children in the tsunami.

Nearby, an old woman stood in the sun clutching a yellow canister of instant coffee mix.

“I lost four children and lots of grandchildren,” said Asiah, who like many here goes by one name.

Beginning to cry, Asiah said she had heard from others that some of her grandchildren were in another camp, but she could not get there because she doesn’t know where it is and has no money.

“I want to know they’re OK,” she said.

Although dozens of camps of large canvas tents have been set up by nongovernmental aid organizations in parks or public fields in Banda Aceh, many others are smaller and not as clean, consisting of a few tarps or plastic sheets strung about in the mud beside the road or in a parking lot.

The Indonesian government is eager to stem the growth of the camps and begin moving people from the makeshift ones into 27 officially recognized relocation centers.

“From time to time, we find a new group of refugees that we just never expected to find there,” Indonesian Air Force Col. Sandi Sunarbowao said.

Col. Sunarbowao said officials want to prevent more displaced persons from flooding into Banda Aceh. Indonesian soldiers, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, have begun relocating displaced people.

The soldiers could be seen moving in large numbers around Banda Aceh yesterday, though Col. Sunarbowao said there has been no increase in the number of Indonesian forces operating in the area since the tsunami.

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