Thu, 26 Jun 2003

Illnesses swamp refugees in Aceh

Nani Farida and A'an Suryana, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe/Banda Aceh

Thousands of Acehnese across the province have been treated for various illnesses since they fled to refugee camps following the imposition of martial law in the province on May 19.

Data provided by the local health office show that virtually all refugees have scabies, over 4,000 suffer from respiratory ailments, 1,369 have ulcers, and thousands of others have contracted bronchitis and diarrhea.

According to the latest data provided by local health officials, there are currently 31,769 refugees living in 16 refugee camps across the province. They are mostly living in tents set up by local administrations.

The central government has sent humanitarian aid including medical supplies, 33 doctors, 18 ambulances and four tons of infant formulas to the refugee camps.

Teuku Muhammad, deputy head of the provincial health office, said on Wednesday that health posts set up within each of the 16 refugee camps had recorded some 14,000 patient visits.

"These are ordinary illnesses and we are already treating them," Muhammad told AFP. "There are malnourished children."

He said 14,000 was the number of visits, not the number of individual patients treated, and that he did not consider the figure to be alarming.

"On a daily basis, the number of visits is small," he said.

At Keunire refugee camp, Pidie regency, and Cot Pagu camp, Bireuen regency, common diseases afflicting refugees dues to poor sanitation include diarrhea, colds and upper respiratory infections (ISPA).

Fachrurizal, a medical officer at Keunire camp, said that the common cold topped the list of diseases with 241 cases, followed by diarrhea with 233 cases, then skin problems with 220 cases and ISPA with 164 cases.

The Keunire camp is packed with over 1,760 families, mainly from four villages in Muara Tiga district, Pidie.

Halimah, 70, complained of water shortage in the camp.

"I feel itchy all over; I want to go home as soon as possible," Halimah told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Yusniar, 20, who is eight months pregnant, said that she had a cold and felt achy.

Refugees in Cot Pagu camp, home to 4,480 families from eight villages in Juli district, Bireuen regency, are experiencing similar conditions.

Sufli, a Cot Pagu camp official said that the government had tried its best to overcome the shortage of clean water at the camps, but that the problem kept recurring.

"We are always calling the water company to fix the camp's water supply, but the problem persists," he said.

The Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged both the Indonesian Military and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to "respect the humanitarian principles" as stipulated in the Geneva Convention in a joint statement on Wednesday.

Both sides must avoid violence against human life and persons and the taking of hostages, they said.

The PMI also called on the public to give blood to help "fulfill the need for blood donations", which has been increasing in Aceh.

Meanwhile, from the battlefield, police claimed on Wednesday to have arrested a senior GAM spokesman.

Irwandi Yusuf, alias Isnandar al-Pase, is being detained at a police station in Banda Aceh and is facing charges of treason, said provincial police spokesman Sayed Husaini.

Yusuf is among the most senior of 535 people -- whom the military allege are rebels -- who were detained or surrendered during the operation.

The military said another 270 GAM members had been killed in the operation launched to quash the rebels, after attempts to resolve the 27-year conflict through dialog failed.

Eight of the rebels died on Tuesday in four separate firefights across Aceh, said Lt. Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki, a military operation spokesman.

A rebel spokesman, Teungku Mansur, told AFP in Jakarta that one GAM member had died on Monday in a firefight at Peureulak, East Aceh.

Mansur denied that GAM was increasingly and systematically being hemmed in by government forces.