While the eyes of the world gazed upon the tsunami that hit Japan, nature asserted her might by wreaking havoc in Pidie, in the Tangse district of Aceh. Floods and landslides lashed eight communities, wiping out the footprints of most the people that dwelled in those parts.

We heard about the events because some of the people in the office come from Tangse district and surroundings, and their families are still living there. A first check via the usual news outlets yielded no information, but the calls kept coming in reporting two, three, four … villages being wiped out, and the inevitable loss of life.

By early afternoon the decision was made to send three of us, from Banda Aceh, to deliver some basic relief and assess the situation. We connected with two more colleagues based in Pidie, who purchased 200 kg of rice, several cartons of noodles, cooking oil, water and eggs to take to the affected areas. By early evening we were loaded and the five of us were on our way.

In Tangse we talked to emergency services, army officials and the PMI (Indonesian Red Cross) to get a basic idea of the situation. It became quite clear that even at this early stage of the emergency relief operation, the usual squabbles and non-sense disagreements were beginning to surface. Driven by a sense of urgency, we decided to go to it independently.

 The PMI leaders offered us an off-road lift to the last of the accessible areas from where we could begin to piece the story together. Further evidence of disagreements floated through the air, consolidating our resolve not to pool our provisions in the larger deposit of relief supplies, only for them to lie in wait for the slow bureaucratic machine to get its cogs moving, instead we would try to do a quick need assessment and respond accordingly.

The validation to our reservations came from the dark, literally, in the shape of a group of men, equipped with sacks, and hungry eyes. The men had made the journey in the night, from Puncuok Dua, the most remote village in the affected areas. The men told us that no emergency had yet reached their village. They had moved the women, children and the elders to a camp higher in the mountains, and came down looking for food as everyone was hungry.

It didn’t require too much deliberation on our part, it was decided that Samsul and I would join the men to deliver the supplies to their village, while the other three would work with the logistics teams at base to assess further needs, but first thing first, the hungry men were provided with a meal, which they devoured with fervour.

Splitting the load as evenly as possible we set out for the perilous journey to Puncuok Dua just before midnight, ill-equipped (no wet weather gear or even drinking water, as we forgot it behind), under a fine drizzle of rain and in pitch darkness. The road had all but been wiped out, so, we walked through the debris, through peoples’ homes and properties, scrub, dodging barbed wire and collapsed power lines, in mud ankle–deep, and at times, knee-high.

One third into the journey, some of the men began protesting that the load was too heavy and they couldn’t go on. Instead, the idea was floated that they would take the bare minimum for their families, sending down others to collect their share. Somehow the idea didn’t stick and we continued on – the men guiding us mostly cheerful and bemused by the presence of a foreigner game enough to press on. Their laughter and comments seemed well-meaning and carried no offense. And in any case, laughter was good to release the necessary endorphins needed to ease the discomfort on the back, neck and legs.

If I ever needed confirmation of the essential use of local knowledge, this was living proof. I was totally awestruck at these peoples’ ability to find their way in complete darkness. One thing was keeping the river to the right, but another cutting across fields with no evident signs, to me at least, of land marks or boundaries.

Sometime after 3:00am we made it to one of the first houses in the village, which was going to serve as our distribution point. At our arrival we were greeted by looters, who scurried out quickly, but unrecognisable by the clearly disappointed owner of the house, who was in our group. After this minor inconvenience, we stacked the load and camped on the floor of the house.

Our host boiled fresh coffee for the all 26 of us, from the supplies he cooked noodles and eggs, and laid out a large mat for us to catch some sleep. After the meal and coffee break some of the men rejoined the camp to ensure that women, children and the elders were safe, while we took comfort in the hospitality.

While everyone was taking a well deserved rest, the owner of the house kept busying himself, making sure everyone was comfortably settled in. Even after I lied down, I could hear him tinkering in the house fetching pillows, covers and sundry. I fell asleep, and must have slept the sleep of the dead because I never felt him putting over me a heavy quilt, which was a welcome and warm relief from the wet clothes I was in.

Within two hours ducks quacked us out of our slumber for everyone to begin organising distribution and assessing further needs and possible interventions. The people from the camp started coming down, and as the rain eased and the sun peered out through the clouds, the relief hand-outs, cleaning up and reconstruction began immediately.

In the daylight it wasn’t too difficult to understand the causes of such devastation. This is an area in which deforestation and illegal logging are as rampant as fleas on a stray. But taking the moral high ground in these surroundings serves no point. The loggers, some who were my night companions, were trying to eke out a simple living with the few opportunities presented to them.

Here, in this muddy mess, the dilemma between life and some quality of life; poverty and simplicity; needs and desires; cable TV sat dishes and education is as murky as the mud that stuck all over me. Yes, this people may well be the executioners, the pointy end of resources pillage, but not the real exploiters and misusers of the surrounding environment. If you are looking for those, you must look elsewhere in the houses that still stand and the pantries that are well stocked.

As I sat in the back of the car on the way back to Banda Aceh, I relived some of the scenes and exchanges that I was privileged to witness. What struck me were the ordered lines of people negotiating the debris to reach for relief supplies, placing the loads on their heads and backs and traipse back to where they had come from. It occurred to me that I saw no displays of emotions – anger, tears or despair.


From this birds-eye view I thought I saw the perfectly regulated order of things – the necessity of some provides riches for others; equally, in a quirky sort of way, the necessity of some causes havoc, but the riches of others provide relief through their corporate social responsibility, managed by well-meaning agents, and the wheel keeps turning in perfect harmony – even though such harmony may well be at our peril.


Fotos: Puncuok, Aceh; ’11