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 CNS Story:

INDONESIA-JRS Jan-25-2005 (870 words) With photos to come. xxxi

Jesuit aid agency ships body bags with tsunami aid -- just in case

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNS) -- Boxes of body bags were among the provisions field workers with Jesuit Refugee Service loaded on a truck to be shipped to a small island off Banda Aceh.

The bags were there "just in case" their workers encountered the dead, said Philip Yusenda, project director for JRS in Aceh province.

JRS was one of the first humanitarian aid organizations to respond to the tsunami disaster that killed up to 230,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean countries. Thirty minutes after the disaster, JRS workers on motorbikes were combing Banda Aceh's streets, looking to transport the injured to a medical clinic across the street from the agency's office.

JRS had three staff members in Banda Aceh at the time. The house from which they worked was lightly damaged by the magnitude 9 earthquake; the waters caused by the tsunamis never reached the part of the city where the house is located.

Nangtok, a JRS staffer who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said that he first ran outside to see what damage was caused by the earthquake. Once outside, he saw wet, terrified people fleeing from the seaside.

He said he quickly gathered his co-workers and friends to go out and gather the injured. Although most of the city was flooded, he said he went where he could.

On Dec. 27, Nangtok called JRS offices in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

"I called my boss and said 'I am fine and I am working.' I hung up because it was all I had time for," he said. He spent the rest of the day seeking medicine to treat the injured.

A month after the disaster, Nangtok declined to discuss what he witnessed in the Dec. 26 disaster.

"It is hard for him because he saw so many bad things," Yusenda told Catholic News Service.

All of JRS' staff survived the tsunami, but many of its local partners and beneficiaries were killed.

In Calang, a small village on Aceh's west coast, JRS worked with a group of refugees who had fled the province's ongoing guerrilla conflict. JRS said that of the 5,000 people who lived in the village fewer than 100 survived.

The agency is still serving Calang and its isolated survivors. The only way to reach the group is by an eight-hour boat ride. The agency sent a ship filled with food, clothing and medical supplies Jan. 23.

The supply truck parked outside JRS' house Jan. 24 was heading to Banda Aceh's port, where an advanced assessment team would travel by small wooden boat to Aceh island, about an hour away. The island suffered heavy casualties in the tsunamis, and the team was going to see if conditions were stable enough to return refugees displaced by the disaster.

These refugees from two villages on Aceh island have been herded into a camp managed by JRS in Lamrado, about 40 minutes outside Banda Aceh, on Sumatra island.

JRS works in four refugee camps, but has sole management responsibility in Lamrado. The agency assumed camp management in mid-January.

Many of those in the Lamrado camp were stranded on Aceh island for two days without food, spending their time burying the dead before being evacuated by boat. Many of the survivors were badly wounded or sick, so JRS assembled a medical clinic inside the camp to process and treat the injured more efficiently.

While Marc Rogers, a nurse volunteering for JRS, changed the dressing on the left leg of a 16-year-old girl, he explained that the girl had a tree branch stuck through her thigh for nearly three weeks after the disaster.

"When we pulled it out, there were two leaves on the branch that were stuck inside her body. Incredibly, there was no infection," he said.

Rogers said many refugees were suffering from respiratory ailments resulting from swallowing seawater and that many had wounds and illnesses that were potentially life-threatening if left untreated.

On Jan. 24, Rogers determined that eight people were ill enough to require more urgent medical care. The sick, who included a young girl with symptoms of tuberculosis, were packed into two four-wheel-drive vehicles and transported to Banda Aceh. One woman, who was bleeding vaginally and could not walk, was turned away by two hospitals before a clinic staffed by U.S doctors with the Global Peace Initiative treated her.

The morning visits to the camp -- JRS goes at least six days a week -- often turn into daylong affairs, when refugees have to be rushed to a hospital or medical clinic. Often, the refugee is turned away because the clinic does not have the capacity to treat the refugee's illness.

The Indonesian government and some nongovernmental organizations have said the health care system for Banda Aceh is working well and is containing illnesses and that the region has an abundance of doctors. JRS workers said those statements were misleading and irresponsible, citing their own experience of seeking medical help for their beneficiaries.

"It can be very frustrating to bring someone in with a serious illness, and the wait can be endless," said Yenny Kristanti, JRS field worker.


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