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German Army Tends To Tsunami Victims

Meike Scholz in Banda Aceh / AFP (sac)
January 12, 2005

While Indonesia's government on Wednesday limited foreign access to its tsunami-devastated Aceh province, the German army has set up camp there and plans to offer help with a mobile field hospital.

A German soldier prepares a mobile field hospital for IndonesiaImage: AP

The first German Bundeswehr soldiers have arrived in Banda Aceh and started working. They are part of the special unit KSES, which quickly deploys medical service specialists to crisis regions.

In just a few days, a high-tech mobile field hospital will be operative in Banda Aceh. The 40 soldiers pull up the tarpaulins between the mud left by the tidal wave. When the unit has completed that, though, the real work begins.

"We want to mainly step in on short notice," said senior field doctor Thomas Harbaum. "This includes surgery, hygienic aid or helping with mobile troops to cover as many areas as possible."

Indonesia limits access to foreigners

Indonesia meanwhile asserted its military control over Aceh on Wednesday, requiring foreigners to register and seek official escorts to avoid what it said was a danger of rebel attacks.

The move to lock down the jealously guarded region came as Indonesia's Vice President Yusuf Kalla said foreign troops should leave Aceh as soon as they finish their relief missions, staying no longer than three months.

"In fact, the sooner the better," Kalla was quoted as saying.

Before the tsunami hit, Indonesia had sealed off Aceh to outsiders while it conducted a major military offensive to crush separatists engaged in a long-running independence struggle.

Boeing 737 Landebahn Banda Aceh
A cargo plane carrying relief supplies for the victims of the tsunami catastrophe at Banda Aceh airportImage: AP

After the devastation on Dec. 26, the region was thrown open, with thousands of foreign volunteers and troops rushing to bring humanitarian assistance.

Now authorities say foreign aid missions and journalists must register and be accompanied by the military if they travel outside main towns, while Indonesian officers will be placed on foreign ships and planes.

UN officials understanding

The UN coordinator for Aceh, Joel Boutroue, said he did not believe there was a threat from the rebels, adding that although his organization had no objection to the measures, it was clear security was not the only goal.

"They want to have the situation under control for political reasons as well as security reasons," he said. "That's understandable."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's special humanitarian envoy, Margareta Wahlstrom, played down the impact of the restrictions.

"I don't see these as restrictions," Wahlstrom said, adding she did not think the regulations would impede the relief effort. "They are not saying you cannot go. They are saying, let us know when you go."

The challenge of coordination

Bildgalerie Hilfsaktion in Südasien Zelt in Banda Aceh
Tens of thousands of people in Banda Aceh have become homelessImage: AP

Back in Banda Aceh, German Lieutenant Colonel Walter Huber Schmidt said he is relieved to finally be on site and added that governments limiting access to foreigners was a well-known problem in similar crises.

"In the case of such catastrophes, it's always a problem that the respective government has to approve the deployment," Schmidt said, adding that the men and women of KSES needed another one or two days before being ready to start treating patients.

The second largest problem is the coordination of the many various aid organizations, he added.

"Before the tidal wave, two to five airplanes landed at the small airport in Banda Aceh every day," Schmidt said. "Now, it's 140 planes. Of course, this has to be coordinated and managed. This can give the impression that everything isn't running that well."

Medical complications

The rainy season has started in the Aceh province. Three or four times a day, it buckets down. While the soldiers get their equipment out of the rain, dredging machines at the Banda Aceh hospital dig the mud aside. Not a lot survived the flood, only destroyed equipment and beds. The personnel is gone -- dead or missing.

Only one thing is certain: The need for help is still huge.

"Even 14 days after the tsunami, we are still seeing a lot of surgical complications, such as infected wounds," Harbaum said. "Meanwhile, we've already got over 20 cases of tetanus in the city. That is a disease that is not easy to treat here."

In addition, the doctor said he fears that malaria or dengue fever could develop. Already now, the number of diarrhea and respiratory problems in the homeless camps is growing.

Trying to prevent worse

Colonel Fritz Wiggers, a doctor in the army reserve, is therefore trying to help already wherever he can. He's sitting in one of the many shelters, surrounded by numerous women, handing their children to him.

Wiggers has tried to bring some order into the chaos, but he doesn't have a lot of options. He can give advice, though, and try to prevent worse.

"Measles, cholera, tetanus, we'll see what surfaces," he said as he vaccinated the children.