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“The humanitarian situation is dreadful. The confirmed death toll in Indonesia so far is nearly 80,000, and the numbers continue to rise as rescue teams search for the missing. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. There is lack of food, medicine and drinkable water. Dead bodies have not been removed, and there is a fear of mass outbreaks of diseases. Hospitals are gone, and some villages especially along the west coast have been cut off” said Ms Ingvild Solvang, JRS Indonesia Advocacy Officer on 30 December 2004.

Following the earthquake large parts of the infrastructure have been demolished. Roads and bridges have been destroyed. Telecommunications and electricity have been cut and the supply of fuel is scarce. This has added greater challenges for the distribution of emergency aid. People have been traumatized and children have lost their caretakers. The government is not functioning because their staff are missing or caring for their own communities.

“The Acehnese people have again been struck by disaster. The population of only 4.5 million have already lived with violence and human rights abuse for decades in a war between the Indonesian government and a separatist group. Social structures to handle the current situation have already been damaged by war. This natural disaster is yet another blow to an already suffering people”, said Ms Solvang.

The Indonesian Government and the humanitarian community have called on the international community to assist with the provision of relief to the victims, and to rebuild the region. The government anticipates that the emergency situation will last for a year, and that recovery of the affected areas will take at least another 5 years.

JRS Indonesia has been present in Aceh since 2001, and has since then provided service and accompaniment to people affected by the conflict in the province.

“We are currently distributing body bags in Banda Aceh to assist with the removal of corpses, to reduce the risks of outbreaks of disease. In the coming days we will start delivering food throughout Banda Aceh and East Aceh”, added Ms Solvang.

Currently funds are urgently needed for water purifying equipment and for transportation, as well as for food, drinking water, medicine, shelter, blankets, clothes, mosquito nets, cooking supplies and other basic needs.

In the medium to long term funds will be needed for the reconstruction of Aceh too. JRS Indonesia staff called on the public not to forget about Aceh when the media interest dies away. The humanitarian needs in Aceh are greater than ever, and the people of Aceh will be in need of our assistance for years to come.


Over the last few days JRS Indonesia has mobilized staff into Medan in North Sumatra and Aceh, areas hit by earthquake and Tsunamis on December 26. On 1 January two JRS trucks carrying vital supplies left Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, for Aceh. The supplies included medicines, cooking utensils, communication equipment, and food (in particular baby food). The vehicles headed in the direction of Banda Aceh, but also stopped along the way to help victims of the disaster.

Many people have left the regional capital Banda Aceh for Medan due to lack of food and because they cannot bear the smell of dead bodies that have still not been collected. Meanwhile thousands of new internally displaced people (IDPs) have been observed entering Banda Aceh in the hope that assistance will be available.

On 31 December JRS Indonesia reported that victims had still not received assistance, while supplies are piling up at the airports in Banda Aceh, Medan and Jakarta. Damaged infrastructure, lack of petrol and trucks were making distribution very difficult.

“IDPs are found in several locations, but their position is constantly changing. The IDPs are forced to move to wherever food and water can be found. This creates another challenge for the coordination of the distribution of emergency relief. It is also difficult to identify which areas are most in need of assistance”, said Ingvild Solvang, JRS Indonesia Advocacy Officer.

“What is mostly needed now is drinkable water, food, cooking supplies, petrol, trucks, drivers, clothes, mosquito nets and medical supplies. Because of the lack of clean water and cooking supplies, JRS has appealed to the humanitarian community to send in high protein food that does not require water or cooking as an initial response”, Ms Solvang added.

Because of the difficult logistics JRS and other humanitarian agencies will need to be self sufficient in terms of transport and supplies for staff. Fortunately, the JRS office in Banda Aceh was spared, and can accommodate personnel and equipment.

Over the coming weeks, JRS aims to set up large communal kitchens. Cooking supplies and water are scarce, and JRS will supply large pots and pans that can be used by families in need.

Most hospitals in Aceh have been destroyed by the disaster. However, the health station close to the JRS office in Banda Aceh is still intact, and JRS plans to supply basic medical equipment to enable the nurse to continue to provide health care to the neighbouring population.

As an initial response JRS donated 1000 body bags to the Indonesian Red Cross working in Banda Aceh. In Malaysia, JRS and the San Francis Xavier church community have sent water purifiers.


Sri Lanka, once called a Paradise, has been suffering from nearly two decades of bloody civil war which has cost the lives of more than 70,000 innocents, nearly 60,000 have disappeared, and has forced a further 800,000 to flee to different parts of the world. The temporary ceasefire signed in February 2002 between the warring groups had brought a new ray of hope to the lives of many that they would be able to rebuild their lives and realize their dreams.

One JRS coordinator who worked in JRS Tamil Nadu in India left for his motherland, Sri Lanka, last March hoping that he would be able to set up a new life, after being fed up of living as a refugee. He promptly got a job at JRS Sri Lanka, which was overseeing the rehabilitation programme for the refugees returning home.

His house facing the Indian Ocean was completely washed away along with his teenaged daughter. He himself is in a serious condition in hospital. His town Mullaitheevu was completely destroyed. Only 2% of the houses were not destroyed. Most of the affected population were returnees who came back to settle down in Sri Lanka and were being assisted by JRS.

JRS Sri Lanka has undertaken a round the clock relief operation. Our operations have included providing food in the relief camps, building temporary shelters, providing rations, milk powder, medicine, locating the lost ones, and coordination of relief operations, as JRS is present in the army controlled as well as the LTTE rebel controlled areas.

“There is a severe shortage of medicine, dry rations, milk powder, baby food, bed sheets, stoves, lanterns, building and shelter material, and fishing and desalination equipment”, Mr Paul Newman, JRS South Asia Advocacy Officer told Dispatches on 5 January.

“JRS Sri Lanka at this juncture is able to only accompany the people in many places in the war zones of the north, as it is very difficult to start relief operations. Compounded to this problem is the incessant rain, affecting people living in the relief camps”, added Mr Newman.


On 4 January the Indonesian authorities in North Sumatra estimated that the official death toll was 94,100 while 387,607 are living in temporary tents and in scattered camps.

JRS Indonesia staff reported that life in Banda Aceh was slowly returning to normal with several markets beginning to open. Dead bodies have been removed from public areas, but may still be found in the rubble. But there were still dead bodies on the outskirts of Banda Aceh.

On 5 January the transport situation to Aceh was still difficult with many delays being reported between Jakarta and Medan. The airport in Banda Aceh was closed yesterday due to an accident on the runway. Although fuel stations were operating, public transport was still not functioning in Banda Aceh. However, the public bus service between Banda Aceh and Medan was operating.

Many survivors had still not received humanitarian assistance, especially along the West coast of Aceh. Although Meulaboh was accessible overland, humanitarian assistance was being hindered by the bad condition of the roads.

JRS staff continued to voice their concerns about the many unaccompanied children in Aceh who are vulnerable to being trafficked and illegally adopted. The Indonesian Government has issued guidelines that unaccompanied children should not be allowed to leave Indonesia.

JRS continues its daily search for vulnerable unregistered Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in areas outside Banda Aceh. JRS provides them with information about the procedures for receiving aid, and with transport. IDPs in small scattered camps need to request for aid to the National Coordinating Agency for IDP and Disaster Management (SATKORLAK PBP). SATKORLAK issues a letter which the IDPs need to bring to warehouses. The government does not have vehicles to assist the IDPs in getting the aid to their camps. IDPs in small camps face difficulties in obtaining assistance because they are not registered. Government and humanitarian agencies are often suspicious of these requests following cases where aid was resold.

JRS currently has 16 staff in Banda Aceh and its Medan office, in North Sumatra, is the centre of JRS logistics and information.


The entire costal area lies barren. Nothing much remains to recall the villages that were here only 2 weeks ago before the tsunami struck.

“I had not been to Aceh before the disaster, and have no mental image to compare it with, but in between twisted metal and scattered bricks there are signs of the life that once was: a family picture, clothes, the head of a tiny, yellow teddy bear. On a rock, someone has placed a spoon and the miracle of an intact porcelain plate, signalling hope that their owner will one day come back”, Ms Ingvild Solvang, JRS Indonesia Advocacy Officer, told Dispatches on 8 January.

“Literally on the road towards the beach there is a pink house, the walls of which for some reason have managed to withstand the pressure of giant waves flushing in and then pulling back throwing the entire house 50 meters from its foundation. The door is gone, and there are big holes in the walls through which we enter in an attempt to get closer to the forces capable of such destruction. Looking around I see writing on the wall: “Do not disturb”. Someone owns this house. I am struck with relief”, added Ms Solvang.

Entering an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) settlement in a school up the hill a survivor tells JRS Indonesia staff that the village once had a population of 6,000 people. There are now 600 left. His wife and two children are not among them. He was in the rice field together with many of the men when he saw the giant waves. He managed to run to the safety of the mountain, but most women and children were caught unaware near their homes. That is why the camps are mostly made up of men. The refugees have been provided with medical care and food.

Talking about the future in bleak terms the survivor says “what can I do but to sit and wait? I don’t know what to do now. Our home is gone, my entire family is gone, my tools and my field are gone. Some of us will be ready to return eventually, but the women who survived are still too scared: scared of earthquakes, scared of the ocean, and scared of the ghosts.”

As the days and weeks pass since the tsunami, the emergency phase in the Banda Aceh area will come to an end. Basic needs still remain unmet: adequate shelters and latrines. Vaccinations are needed to prevent outbreaks of epidemics. The distribution system of food is still not reaching everybody, especially those in small camps and those who have sought shelter with family and friends.

Nevertheless, assessments are essential to determine what needs to be done to restore some sense of normality back to the lives of the more than half a million refugees throughout Aceh, North Sumatra and Jakarta.

What will be required to help the refugees re-establish their livelihoods? What type of psychosocial support will the refugees need to overcome the trauma and sense of loss that they have experienced? How to encourage people to go on living? Finally, how to involve the survivors in the reconstruction of their communities to prevent their long term displacement?

The involvement of the displaced population is especially important in the emergency operation, which to a large extent is being carried out by international agencies and central Indonesian authorities.

“The operation to rebuild Aceh must be rooted in local culture and customs. People with good intentions of bringing relief need a clear picture of local life in order to carry out their mission in accordance with the principle of “doing no harm”. It is essential that the Acehnese themselves determine the process ahead. JRS Indonesia has been in Aceh since 2001, and has established closed ties to many of the local organizations. The community has lost family and friends, and offices and materials are gone. The local civil society is doing a remarkable job,” said Ms Solvang.

JRS continues to assist civil society by offering them a meeting point, 24 hour internet connection, and logistical and other support.


On 10 January Dispatches received reports, confirmed by Indonesian military (TNI) sources, of shootings in Banda Aceh and in areas along the west coast of Aceh. People travelling in these areas have been asked to take precautionary measures to avoid unnecessary causalities. Although military sources accused the local media of exaggerating the risks, the TNI has been providing escort to aid trucks in convoy bound for Banda Aceh and Meulaboh and relief groups have been advised to follow TNI procedures.

The national coordinating agency for refugee and disaster relief (Satkorlak or Bakornas PBP at the national level) has been criticised for its ineffective management of the crisis. However, according to the Aceh Working Group in Jakarta, Bakornas PBP does not have full authority over the situation in Aceh. They said that Aceh, still under civil emergency status, is under strong military direction.

JRS Indonesia is increasing worried about displaced people who have not accessed camps, who are not officially registered. Many have been forced to find shelter in their relatives’ homes or are simply scattered outside camps.

On 9 January Satkorlak estimated the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Aceh Jaya District at 31,465. Aceh Jaya now is becoming a focus of attention for several aid agencies as much of the area is still extremely difficult to access. Reports say that Calang and Lamno, both in Aceh Jaya district, are only accessible by boat.

Also on 9 January Hasan Wirayuda, Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that in three months’ time Indonesia should be able to establish reliable aid distribution mechanism so that international emergency relief may end.

In order to improve access for the humanitarian relief the Indonesian government has offered two alternative airports, Subang in Weh island and Batam, as transit bases given the congestion and limited warehouse space in Polonia, Medan. The IOM (International Organization for Migration) has also renewed its offer to provide transport assistance to those providing emergency aid. All they need is 48 hour notice and further details of the cargo.

JRS office in Banda Aceh continues to play a key coordination role providing a space where many people from different groups and organisations can meet and share information. As well as administering direct assistance to the victims, JRS Banda Aceh continues providing support to local NGOs and IDP groups. Most of the large international NGOs are pouring attention into big camps. These local partners are the only ones who provide assistance to the internally displaced population living outside the main camps.

A health assessment carried out by JRS identified the need for a mobile clinic to ensure that this vulnerable population receives basic medical care. With the support of partners from Malaysia, JRS plans to introduce such a service shortly.

A group of 28 volunteers, using satellite phones to stay in touch with the JRS office in Banda Aceh, have set out to comb areas along the west coast of Aceh for people in need. This advance team will soon be followed by a logistics team with some 15 tons of aid.

Meanwhile JRS in Medan has started to visit IDPs camps scattered in Medan area.

“We are assessing the possibility of providing assistance to those managing camps. From our previous experience managing camps in the region, we feel that good camp management is vital to prevent further suffering of the IDPs. Part of this job is about empowering the survivors themselves”, said a JRS Medan spokesperson.

JRS DISPATCHES is from the International Office of Jesuit Refugee Service, CP 6139, 00195 Roma Prati, Italy. Tel: +39-06 689.77.386; Fax: +39-06 688 06 418; Email:; JRS on-line:; Publisher: Lluís Magriñà SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), Centro Astalli/JRS Italy (Italian).

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