Sat, 21 Jun 2003

The job of the Red Cross: Cleaning up the mess left by war

YS Tong, Journalist, Banda Aceh, Aceh

They see with their eyes the victims of almost every battle, dead or alive, in conflict-torn Aceh province, located at the tip of northern Sumatra.

Unlike the ordinary Acehnese, the media, the military and rebels who are always racing for information on the latest battle, they are perfectly comfortable with being the last to be informed.

This is because their job begins when the explosions and gunfights are over.

They are the volunteers and staff of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), who have traveled up hills and across streams to treat the injured and to bring back the dead, who would otherwise become food for wild animals or compost for the earth.

They have treated dozens of wounded people and recovered over 200 corpses in the first month of the military operation against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatist rebels.

As the operation continues, coupled with an increase in kidnappings by unknown perpetrators, the number of bodies is expected to rise in the coming days.

As it is, PMI's daily work already sounds far removed from a dream job.

What makes their task even less attractive is the disturbing condition of the bodies when they are located -- many had their hands tied behind their backs, some were thrown into rivers, some had plastic bags covering their heads, and worst of all, some were found with missing limbs, including the head.

Most of these bodies, however, share three things in common -- they are all male, they have all been shot and they all exude an unbearable odor.

Fachrul Rizayani, a university student, said he was getting used to all the "horror" after months of working as a PMI volunteer.

"It was not easy at first, but now I'm okay with it, although I have to handle the bodies wearing gloves. Some colleagues of mine can do it with their bare hands," he said.

Over 400 Acehnese people like Fachrul are now working with PMI, which has based its operation center in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

The PMI did not launch any recruitment campaign for volunteers. The volunteers -- mostly those who were involved with PMI during secondary school or university -- just showed up on their doorstep and offered to help when violence resumed just before the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement officially collapsed.

The volunteers are stationed at 18 centers spread throughout the province and they work according to a duty-roster, which divides a day into three shifts.

Each center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Phone calls from the Indonesian Military (TNI) and locals could come in at any time, informing the center about locations where bodies have been spotted.

The remains often end up in district hospitals for autopsies and burials. They are mostly John Does -- without ID cards and their facial features already decomposed from exposure to mud or water, which makes identification extremely difficult, if not impossible.

In rare cases, however, the bodies were identified and returned to their families. This happens when PMI finds a match among its operations centers, that corresponds to the description provided by families who have lodged missing-person reports with them.

Even when a body is finally identified, it is not really a joyous moment nor a relief to the PMI staff and volunteers.

"The family members would be waiting outside their house after we have informed them that we are coming. As soon as the body arrives in an ambulance, the family members would rush to it and start crying.

"I cried several times along with the families. It was embarrassing, but I could not help it," recalled Riya Ison, the public relations officer for PMI in Aceh.

When asked who the Acehnese people think killed their men, he pointed at a plaque on the wall bearing the principles of PMI and replied, "We are neutral when it comes to an armed conflict or political dispute."

Riya, who is from Lampung, Southern Sumatra, added that he had tried to understand why the TNI and GAM, both with Muslim elements, were fighting each other when he first came to Aceh as a PMI volunteer years ago.

"This question does not bother me any more, because I understand better now that our job is to help people in need, regardless of their race or religion.

"There are a lot of things that we do not need to know," he said.

The refugees obviously know well about this principle of neutrality. Many of them, when fleeing their homes to avoid battles in their villages, choose to follow PMI ambulances so as not to be targeted by either side.

With each passing day, the PMI's workload is getting heavier and heavier.

A recent addition on their daily work is to assist the Social and Health Department in distributing medicine, food, clothes and other basic amenities to some 40,000 refugees in designated camps.

Last week, PMI also funded and completed the construction of makeshift classrooms -- simple wooden structures covered with canvas tarp -- for students in Lam Pisang, a town about six kilometers from Banda Aceh.

They plan to build nine more of these temporary classrooms in other areas to improve the learning environment of Acehnese students. Over 500 school buildings have been burned down by unidentified arsonists since the military operation began a month ago.

Still, even with their principle of neutrality and commitment to helping those in need, not all appreciate nor understand PMI's work.

Riya said there were previous incidents in which PMI ambulances were shot at by, again, unknown people. And in recent weeks, the PMI has began receiving prank calls from people claiming to have found bodies.

"But this will not hamper our work, because we are prepared for the worst," Riya said.

As soon as he finished speaking, the phone rang. A resident had called to report a dead body floating in a river in the Aceh Besar district.

Riya hopped into an ambulance with a few volunteers and off they went to do what they are good at -- cleaning the mess left after every battle.

YS Tong is a visiting journalist from Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).