The power of humanity amidst Aceh’s devastation

Published: 10 March 2005 0:00 CET

Christer Zettergren* and Maude Froberg in Aceh

When did the journey begin? When I got on the plane from Stockholm to Jakarta, with 21 hours of travel in front of me.

In reality the journey began weeks ago, on Boxing Day when I received the first emergency phone call, telling me that thousands of Swedish citizens were reported missing in Thailand and the magnitude of the disaster began to sink in.

As the grim death toll continued to rise, the relief operation got into full swing, accompanied by an unprecedented outburst of solidarity.

In only in a couple of weeks, the Swedish Red Cross raised 85 million Swiss francs, the equivalent of two years’ turnover. It is not just a question of money; it is also a level of trust which has to be managed.

Before going up to Banda Aceh, I attended a two-day meeting in Jakarta, at which more than 70 representatives from the global Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement gathered to discuss a plan of action for the recovery and reconstruction of the tsunami-affected areas, a plan which will be finalized by the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) and submitted to the government.

I know that to some people such big meetings are unnecessary bureaucracy, but to me the opposite is true. With an estimated 250 organizations operating in Aceh, coordination is crucial. The right response must reach the right people.

As we fly into the disaster area in the province of Aceh, I see devastation beyond comprehension; all the houses are destroyed, as if someone in blind fury had taken a gigantic broom and swept everything away.

It is a view which many will recognize from the pictures that have been shown over and over again in the media. But it is not until I walk amid this sea of debris, which used to be a town or a village of hundreds or thousands of inhabitants, that I fully experience the horror of the disaster.

Walking down what must have once been a street, I look for something that is not broken, but I cannot find anything. The devastation is total.

However, it is important that our attention is not focused solely on the death and destruction, but that we also think about rebuilding lives. We must not abandon the survivors.

One of them is Ratnawati. She has just got a room in one of the many temporary shelters being set up for displaced persons. Before the disaster struck, she was living with her husband and their two sons in a small village further down the coast.

When the giant tidal waves hit the coast she managed to escape with her children, but her husband was swept away. Filled with fear and despair, Ratnawati and her sons walked for eight hours to reach safety in Banda Aceh. A walk she will never forget, she tells me.

Today, the small family has slowly started to rebuild their life. One of the two boys is attending school again and for the first time in weeks, Ratnawati is planning for the future, a future which will not take place in the small village but in Banda Aceh. She does not want to go back.

I wish her good luck and continue to the National Stadium on the outskirts of Banda Aceh. Outside this billowing architecture, a large sign bearing the emblem of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) can be seen from afar. I guess few people would have imagined a field hospital here a few months ago.

Louis Riddez, a Swedish surgeon working for the ICRC comes to greet me. The last time I saw him was at a big fundraising event for the victims of the tsunami back in Sweden a month before. “Maybe we’ll see each other in Banda Aceh,” we said.

He shows me the way into the referral hospital’s mass of white tents which cover needs in surgery, gynaecology, maternity and paediatrics.

“I must admit that when I came here three weeks ago, I was not sure if I could be useful to the people affected,” he recalls, “but I truly am. We now perform around ten operations a day, which is actually more than I am used to in Sweden. Even surgical cancer operations are being performed.”

We stop at a bed with a little boy and his father. The boy had a tumour on his forehead removed the day before, explains Louis, and he is now recovering well.

He explains the biggest difference to being a doctor in a field hospital in Banda Aceh: “When it is time to tell a patient to go home, here many people have no home to go to. Therefore a camp for up to 400 discharged people has been set up inside the stadium.”

On a lawn near the Pante Pirak Bridge crossing the river in Banda Aceh white tents stand in front of two big steel tanks. This is one of three places where the Water and Sanitation Emergency Response Unit (ERU) is producing thousands of litres of water every day.

“The best water in town,” states water and sanitation delegate Jeanette Nordin-Groth, not without pride in her voice and offers a taste from a can. “The quality is actually higher than what was distributed before.”

Side by side, volunteers and delegates from the PMI, the Austrian, Swedish and Macedonian Red Cross Societies and Malaysian Red Crescent run distributions throughout the day.

“The teamwork has been excellent”, confirms Jeanette Nordin-Groth. “It is amazing how fast we became a team.”

It is reassuring to meet all these committed delegates in the field. But moreover, their satisfaction is also an indication of the quality of the relief and reconstruction efforts of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

What partly was beyond comprehension is now easier to grasp when encountering the commitment of volunteers and delegates. This is the power of humanity.

* Christer Zettergren is Secretary-General of the Swedish Red Cross