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Aid Effort Snarls on a Hilly Road

January 07, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEUTONG ATEUH VILLAGE, Indonesia — With the wheels of his yellow clapboard truck stuck deep in the slippery mud, the driver closed his weary eyes in exasperation. Sabril Swardi had been on the road for five days, delivering rice, dried noodles and bottled water to tsunami victims on the hardest-hit west coast of Indonesia's northern Sumatra island.

He had made just 60 miles in the last 17 hours: At less than 4 mph, he might as well have been on foot. Competing for space on the narrow mountain pass were carloads of people frantic to find relatives and vans overstuffed with refugees and their belongings.

"People are happy when they get the food, but it is not enough. We need to bring more, and we can't," said Swardi, who had managed just one food delivery to the coastal city of Meulaboh since the Dec. 26 tragedy.

This is supposed to be the world's largest humanitarian operation, an extraordinary response to the biggest natural disaster in years. But in Indonesia, the relief effort is in danger of becoming mired in separatist tensions, local politics, ineptitude and simply mud.

The most pressing problem is that the earthquake and ensuing tsunami wiped out all but one road to the west coast of Aceh province, with its 1 million people. Known locally as the Beutong Ateuh road, the lifeline to this isolated population cuts through nearly impenetrable rain forests and zigzags amid steep volcanic peaks before it descends to the devastated coastal city of Meulaboh and surrounding villages.

It is not just the topography that makes this terrain complicated to navigate. The separatist Free Aceh Movement, which has waged one of the longest-running wars in Asia, is so deeply entrenched in the isolated villages that many Indonesians fear to travel here.

There are also complaints that the government never bothered to pave the mountain road because of the strength of separatist sentiments in these parts.

"The government has neglected us," said Mohammed Isar, 45, one of the many frustrated drivers stuck on the road Thursday. "As a result, there are so many people who need aid and just can't get it."

The United States and many international relief agencies have not even attempted to deliver aid by land, confining their efforts to helicopter deliveries. But the aircraft can carry only limited loads. Without a land route, there are no relief workers on the ground to facilitate distribution. For example, no aid is going to the small mountain towns just above the coast, which are now swollen with refugees.

In the coastal community of Meulaboh, Maj. Chris Cheok, a Singaporean military doctor, said, "So far, really the only way in [to Meulaboh] is by helicopter or by sea.... If you don't have roads, you can't bring in heavy equipment."

Before the tsunami, Meulaboh and other communities along the coast were connected to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh by a relatively modern road and bridges. The waves wiped out those roads, as well as telephone and power lines.

"There is nothing to eat in Meulaboh, so we had to leave," said Rufni Abdullah, a 37-year-old refugee who was wading through the mud wearing flip-flops and carrying a baby wrapped in a sarong on her hip. "I saw some helicopters, but I didn't get any aid."

The truck in which Abdullah was traveling had been broken for two days, blocking Indonesian relief vehicles trying to get in from the opposite direction.

The longer it takes aid to reach the hardest-hit victims, the more people will try to flee, leading to a dangerous gridlock.

In one pickup truck, an extended family huddled under a tarpaulin in a light rain, a bicycle and jerrycans of fuel strapped to the roof. The wheels churned up rivulets of mud; the engine belched black smoke in futility as the overloaded truck tried to navigate a particularly slick ascent. Drivers of blocked aid trucks hopped out to push the truck uphill by its bumper.

"Kerja!" (Move it!) a crowd of mud-spattered travelers shouted, cheering to encourage a truck that had skidded three times in the mud.

In the ditches along the road were the carcasses of trucks that had been abandoned. A boulder as large as a washing machine blocked another stretch of road.

A man in plainclothes with an M-16 rifle strapped over a shoulder barked orders at drivers, claiming to be a member of the police. There was no other sign of any official presence on the road, nobody to direct traffic or help the bedraggled refugees broken down on the side of the road.

"Please, I haven't eaten in two days," a barefoot man who appeared to be about 60 years old begged a journalist.

An exception was at the tiny village of Beutong Ateuh, about halfway between the main mountain city of Takengon and the coast. Village leaders had dispatched a tractor to pull vehicles out of a viscous patch of mud that had snared more than a dozen trucks for hours.

"We have two tractors. But we can only use one at a time because there's no fuel," explained an army sergeant.

And, of course, no way of getting in the fuel.

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