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In Aceh, Ambivalent Over Aid

Locals in the Indonesian province find it hard adjusting to the influx of foreigners. Though grateful for the help, some are still wary.

January 24, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — From behind a rickety wooden crate on which he has spread out cans of Coca-Cola and cigarettes, Mohammed Yunus warily eyes the bare legs of a blond woman in khaki shorts as she helps carry a ladder.

A welter of emotions flickers over his face. Until three weeks ago, this sleepy provincial capital was about as far off the beaten track as it got. Then the tsunami waves that swept away half of Banda Aceh washed in unprecedented numbers of foreigners -- aid workers, soldiers, journalists, diplomats, psychiatrists, missionaries, environmentalists and just plain curiosity-seekers.

Until this past month Yunus, 32, had never seen a Western woman. He is upset that some of the foreigners don't follow the Islamic dress code that prevails in his hometown. On the other hand, he recognizes there is no way to clean up the disaster without their help.

All this is further complicated by the inescapable fact -- which he acknowledges rather sheepishly -- that he is among those cashing in on the foreign presence. Before the tsunami, Yunus earned $2.50 a day as a construction worker; he's been making twice that much since he set up his crate in front of the new tent city of foreigners known as the United Nations humanitarian information center.

"These foreigners are doing so much to help us. But it would be good if they didn't stay too long," Yunus said as two big relief trucks faced off in a dance of gridlock on the narrow road.

Decades of separatist fighting and martial law kept foreign visitors to this northwestern tip of the Indonesian archipelago to a minimum. Journalists and human rights advocates were banned by the Indonesian army, as it waged its war against Acehnese rebels seeking independence. The imposition in 2002 of Islamic Sharia law -- with its accompanying ban on revealing clothing and alcoholic beverages -- ensured that tourists didn't linger long at its stunning palm-fringed beaches.

Today this city is in danger of being smothered by a surfeit of foreign attention and sympathy. One of the regions most ravaged by the tsunami, it has become the destination of choice for much of the world's humanitarian aid community. Dignitaries ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have posed for photographs at Banda Aceh's single-runway airport. A former sultan's palace has become a temporary encampment for an international media corps numbering in the hundreds.

Foreigners can be seen tramping through the ruins of the beachfront neighborhoods or snapping photos in front of the city's leading attraction, an imposing 19th century mosque with licorice-tinged domes and a soaring yellow-brick minaret.

The Armageddon-like quality of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami has touched a nerve with donors who have pledged an estimated $7 billion to help. The vast majority of the approximately 115,000 Indonesians killed in the disaster were in Aceh province -- and Banda Aceh, its capital, has become the hub of the relief effort.

But with all the aid money come aid workers, bringing helicopters, trucks, satellite telephones, rising prices and congestion.

The Acehnese have a long history of fighting invaders, from the Dutch to the Japanese and the present uneasy relationship with Indonesians. There is a natural suspicion of outsiders, whether they come from Europe or Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

"It is very important to the Acehnese people that they don't feel their tragedy is being exploited by the outside world," said Darmansyah, an editor of Serambi, Banda Aceh's daily newspaper, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Since the tsunami, an estimated 50,000 Indonesian troops have descended on Aceh -- more than were present at the height of the army's campaign in the late 1990s against the separatist Free Aceh Movement.

Then there are the foreign troops: 4,478 from 11 countries, according to an Indonesian military spokesman, not counting thousands more who are staying offshore on aircraft carriers such as the United States' Abraham Lincoln. As for aid workers, 3,645 were registered at the U.N. compound as of Sunday, but authorities only started registering them last week, and the list is believed to be incomplete.

Add to that dozens of businesspeople, many of them Indonesians, and religious groups including Islamists and the Church of Scientology.

"A lot of these people who come to Aceh are just voyeurs. They are taking photos and coming to look, using up food and gasoline, but they're not really helping," complained Andi Basrul, 45, who lost his wife and 11-year-old daughter in the tsunami.

The ambivalence of the populace mirrors that of the Indonesian government. Welfare minister Alwi Shihab complained in an interview last week at the airport that foreigners were driving up prices for everything, whether it be taxis or sugar.

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