Tue, 19 Aug 2003

Volunteers in Aceh need blood, ambulance, fund

Tiarma Siboro and Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe, Aceh

Post-violence humanitarian missions are basically the same everywhere, but the students who evacuate the casualties of the ongoing war in Aceh are markedly different from the volunteers who cleared the bodies and assisted the injured from the rubble of the Bali bombings.

While international assistance, ranging from medical equipment to psychological help, poured in to those helping at the blast sites in Bali, the students who join the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) volunteers in Aceh, have to overcome their challenges alone.

"I no longer feel anything when I see dead bodies, whatever state they are in. Initially, we had nightmares. But after two or three evacuations, we got used to it," said Daryanto Manik, one of the students.

Daryanto and his fellow students from Malikussaleh University, in Banda Aceh established the group in 2000. They have helped evacuate 127 victims of the Aceh conflict since the government launched military operations to quell the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on May 19.

The students, Daryanto said, have managed to get used to the pungent odor of blood and decaying flesh. Previously, they used two masks with a handful of coffee beans inserted in between to beat the smell.

"We never wear double masks now. We have run out of them but really, we already got used to the smell," said another volunteer, economic student Zulfikar.

Despite Jakarta's policy to flank the military operation with humanitarian assistance, the PMI workers still face difficulties due to inadequate funds and facilities.

The government also has limited foreign assistance in Aceh, including the provision of humanitarian aid and volunteers.

The Malikussaleh students have only one old Kijang van which has been converted into an ambulance and one stretcher in a poor condition, said the volunteers' coordinator Yus Effendi.

"The van can reach a speed of 80 kilometer per hour at the most and transport just one victim, while we have to rush to sites mostly situated in remote areas.

"Sometimes we have to stack up two or three bodies. If more, we have to take the bodies to the hospital in batches," Yus added.

The student volunteers are not the only one who have to make the best of limit funds. The PMI office in Gandapura district only has one pick-up truck to transport bodies.

Besides masks, the volunteers lack standard safety equipment, including arm-length rubber gloves, rain coats and helmets. These are needed as they often work under heavy rain and the threat of armed attack.

Blood supply is another problem facing the volunteers because the residents are not willing to donate blood, due to their lack of knowledge and fear of syringes, another volunteer Mulyadi, a native of Aceh, said.

The tight evacuation procedures are also giving the volunteers a headache.

After they receive a telephone call, informing them of the location of victims, the volunteers have to obtain approval from the PMI operation center in Lhokseumawe, who will then pass the information on to the police.

But the procedure does not stop there. The volunteers then have to report their presence to the nearest military post and wait until they receive the go-ahead before they arrive at the site.

"That's all for the sake of security. But in some cases, even though we have approval, we are still not safe. Once, when we were just about to reach a location, the soldiers there stopped us and conducted a search. They interrogated two of us and ordered residents and the rest of the team to lie down on the ground, to make sure that we were not GAM supporters.

"On the other hand, once we tried to pick up several bodies from a location, but the GAM fighters who were still there forbade us to take them to the hospital," Daryanto said.

Yus said his team evacuated 40 bodies in July alone, the largest number they had ever picked up in one month. Only 25 of the bodies were identified.

Most of the bodies had sustained gun shot wounds and some of the victims were teenagers.

"Of course the small budget will not stop us from doing humanitarian work. But, to keep the operation going, we need donors to provide us with equipment," Yus said

The unit's office is located on Jl. Tgk. Chik Ditiro No. 2A Lc. Garam Lhokseumawe 24351, phone 0645-48390, facsimile 0645- 44450, email address ksr04_um@plasa.com.