Mon, 16 Jun 2003

Refugees face straitened days

Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe, Aceh

Over 10,000 Acehnese people staying in a refugee camp in Bireuen regency are facing a shortage of clean water as the military offensive enters its fifth week.

The refugees said on Sunday that the rations were not enough to sustain them. Most complained about the meager food, the lack of fresh water and the camp's poor sanitation facilities. Children are also suffering in the intense heat in the open areas or inside the crowded tents of the camps.

"Many here don't bathe anymore," said Mustafa Dadih, 58, an elementary school teacher from Tambo Tan village. "We have problems washing up in the morning because there isn't enough water," he added.

Sanitation problems resulting from the lack of clean water are feared to worsen in the coming days, as water is needed for the refugees to cook, bathe and wash clothes.

The refugees also complained about the absence of side dishes with their meals.

"We have enough rice, that's not the problem," said 38-year- old Abdul Malik, a cook at the refugee camp.

His friend grabbed a handful of the rice from a bucket as Abdul explained, "the problem here is that there's almost nothing to eat but rice."

Rice and some noodles or fish is the only food available at the camp. The meager ration is one of the many harsh changes the refugees will have to adjust to over the next few days, weeks or maybe even months. No one knows when they will be able return home.

Yusri Yusuf, who coordinates the two medical posts at the camp, said that two doctors and several nurses from the nearby Fauziah general hospital, the local health office and the health community center were on call for each eight-hour shift.

He said that so far there had been no serious health problems, although many of the adults complained about headaches. "It's the stress, the changes are just too much," Yusri said.

Antara reported, however, that a refugee had died on Sunday of heart failure. Medical workers had also assisted four women deliver their babies on the same day.

The mass evacuation came as the military stepped up its offensive to flush rebels from their hideouts in the forests surrounding their home villages. For the first time, reports emerged last Friday that howitzers were used to shell rebel positions in Bireuen.

Preparations at the Cot Gabu soccer field to accommodate the refugees began at least 10 days ago, and a few of tents were already seen standing on the spacious field of dry grass early this month, while workers could be seen pitching more.

A sea of people from at least 10 villages in Juli district, Bireuen regency, have sought refuge in a soccer field and another field across it in the village of Cot Gabu since last Friday.

The Police mobile brigade (Brimob) now occupy the villages, manning posts along the road at every few meters to ensure that they remain empty.

The villagers were forced to flee their homes when the fighting came too close. Aside from bringing the residents to safety, the military hopes to separate them from GAM separatists, who easily melt in with the civilians.

The field is located next to the main road connecting Bireuen with the provincial capital Banda Aceh. Across it stands the ruins of a school, burned to the ground before the war, and which now serves as a security post manned by Brimob personnel.

On the battle front, the military said two more rebels were shot dead in South Aceh and at least 15 others were arrested in Aceh Besar regency over the past two days.

Spokesman for the military operation Lt. Col. Achmad Yani Basuki said the two separatists were killed during a clash in Cot Cut village between GAM members and joint Army and Brimob forces in Kuta Baro district, Aceh Besar, at around 7 a.m. on Sunday.

As of Sunday, the TNI reported that rebel casualties totaled 204.

Regarding the number of casualties, the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) announced on Sunday it had evacuated 178 bodies from battlefields.

"The death toll is based on reports from a number of PMI branches and command posts across Aceh," executive chairman of PMI Aceh Sanusi Maha said in a press release issued on Sunday.

He said PMI was also duty-bound to bring the dead to hospitals for further identification and to inform their next-of-kin.