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INDONESIA-REBUILD Jan-25-2005 (760 words) With photos posted Jan. 21 and 25. xxxi

In Indonesia, CRS works to gain trust, rebuild devastated province

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNS) -- In Aceh province, where the predominantly Muslim population follows Shariah, or Islamic law, Catholic organizations are viewed with suspicion and must take great care in how they are perceived by local authorities.

So during the recent celebration of the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, the staff of Catholic Relief Services in Banda Aceh presented a cow and three goats to a mosque across the street from the agency's home.

The act of good will also was a measured response to show Islamic leaders in the world's most populous Muslim country that CRS was in Banda Aceh to serve survivors of the tsunami disaster and that the agency would respect the local culture and customs, said Pat Johns, CRS emergency response director.

"This was the first time in 30 years with CRS that I've ever bought a cow, but if it helps us complete our job, then I think it was a good thing," Johns told Catholic News Service in mid-January.

Completing its mission will be a daunting task for CRS and the dozens of other U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations that arrived in Aceh province to help victims of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunamis. The disaster leveled buildings miles inland; most of the up to 174,000 dead Indonesians were in Aceh.

The destruction was shocking even for veteran aid workers; many said it would take at least five to 10 years for Aceh to rebuild.

About one month after the disaster, bodies continued to be collected around Aceh or washed up along the coast. Three victims reportedly washed up in neighboring Malaysia, several hundred miles away. Large dump trucks filled with body bags were a familiar sight on Banda Aceh's streets.

CRS, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency, has been appointed the lead agency in the Caritas Internationalis federation and is directing how to disperse the $261 million Caritas has collected to help survivors.

CRS officials said the agency got a late start in Aceh compared to other agencies because it lacked a presence in the province before the tsunamis, although it operated programs in other parts of Indonesia. Acehnese have been seeking greater autonomy or independence since the 1940s, and all foreign aid workers and organizations were forced to leave the province in May 2003 after the Indonesian government declared martial law there.

Some agencies, such as Jesuit Refugee Service and the International Catholic Migration Committee, were registered as local nongovernmental organizations and had a management team led by Indonesians, allowing them to stay.

The first CRS emergency worker arrived in Aceh Dec. 30; Johns arrived Jan. 2.

"There's no doubt about it, our initial response was slow," Johns said, noting that many management team members in CRS' Baltimore headquarters were on Christmas vacation at the time of the disaster.

"Our biggest hurdle was identifying what we should do and how should we do it," he said.

CRS decided to focus on Meulaboh, a coastal city cut off from most of the province because the tsunami washed away most of the roads leading there. The only way to get supplies into the city in the disaster's immediate aftermath was by airdropping supplies or delivering supplies by truck from Medan, a difficult trek that takes two days. CRS also assists with food distribution, delivering 18 tons of food per day for 60,000 people.

Meulaboh suffered heavy casualties and extensive damage, but CRS quickly identified areas where homes could be repaired or rebuilt. In late January, the agency began rebuilding 100 homes in Meulaboh, with plans to rebuild at least 1,000 homes in the city and subdistricts, Johns said.

Fiona Callister, spokeswoman for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the overseas relief and development arm of the English and Welsh bishops, said the Caritas federation can help survivors rebuild their communities as quickly as possible.

"I think we are moving out of the emergency phase more rapidly than we expected. People are leaving the camps rapidly and going back to where they were," she said.

"So now, while ensuring people have access to food and clean water, we need to move very quickly to the next stage of the program, which is reconstruction, rebuilding of their livelihoods," she said.

The $50 million CRS collected in its appeal for tsunami disaster relief is included in the Caritas total to help survivors recover from the disaster.

"With all that money, there's a lot of good that we can do," Johns said.


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