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Rashid Chotani Writes of His Work with Tsunami Victims in Indonesia

Baltimore, Maryland
January 20, 2005

Dear All,

I just got back into town and have never been so happy to see my family. The trip to Banda Aceh has humbled me--seeing the devastation has changed my life, as it will of all the people that are there or plan to go to Southeast Asia to provide assistance and relief to people who desperately need it.

Yahya Shaikh and Rashid Chotani

My journey began on January 10 from Baltimore and from there I traveled to Toronto to meet up with my advisee Yahya Shaikh, an MPH student in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School. We flew via Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, we set up shop at a hotel, dumped our supplies and took a flight to Medan, the gateway to Sumatra, Indonesia, and currently the only way into Banda Aceh. In Medan, I ran into Court Robinson and Bill Weiss from the School. After spending almost a day waiting for the flight to board, we reached Banda Aceh at about 7 p.m. Here we hired a car and met with local friends and an interpreter.

Banda Aceh
The atmosphere at the airport was chaotic, overflowing with troops. As soon as we left the airport, I was struck by a very peculiar odor--the smell of death was all around. A few kilometers from the airport, we saw mass graves still being dug.

That night we met with local NGOs to figure out where a small operation/mission like ours would be most useful. It was clear that Banda Aceh was the most affected area but it also was receiving the most NGO activity. Houses were full of relatives who had lost their homes and loved ones. Local NGOs were loaded with medicines, clothes and non-perishable food, as well as the pictures of lost loved ones and posters of the missing--most of these pictures were of children.

It became apparent that there were also pockets of severe damage on the northeastern coast. In the morning, we got in the car and took a trip to some of the affected areas in Banda Aceh. In one area I almost tripped on a three-week-old corpse; I will never be able to forget this. The devastation was unbelievable--well-built houses were destroyed, cars were littered like broken toys. It seemed as if some massive hand had crushed the area.

Searching for the Greatest Need
From there, we started driving on the highway that would ultimately take us to Medan. About 100 kilometers from Banda Aceh, we started passing the sites of coastal villages that had been completely obliterated. Multiple refugee camps had sprouted up with some local help; there was very little foreign aid or NGO presence. At various points on this highway, we observed a strong Indonesian military presence. Another thing that was striking: Caravans of truck loaded to the brim with supplies were moving in the direction of Banda Aceh. The road also had suffered minor damage, in that fresh cracks were apparent. 

Initially, our plan was to try and find a location in Samalanga, around 200 kilometers from Banda Aceh. When we reached that area, we found serious damage as well as refugee camps; however, we also saw some relief activity. I decided to move forward in order to find an area where we would have the greatest impact. After driving all day and seeing areas of severe damage, at around 8 p.m. we reached Panton Labu in north Aceh--a point that was identified as one of the most remote areas affected.

Panton Labu is Chosen
We immediately visited the site and were able to identify three refugee camps in close proximity, with a total of approximately 800-1000 refugees. One camp was situated adjacent to a mosque, the second in a school and the third a kilometer from there. The locals welcomed us and we were able to select a site for the clinic in the second camp.

Around 40 percent of the population were suffering from severe, watery diarrhea. More adults were affected then children, and men more then women. There was electricity, but running water was available just once every two days, for two hours. The few latrines were extremely unhygienic.

People presented with skin lesions, and most were depressed. Two individuals in camp no. 2 were described as being "crazy." The people were housed in multiple tents, classrooms and the mosque. There was extreme overcrowding. The tents had been supplied by the government. A large portion of the coastal area was completely destroyed.

The most interesting medical finding was that 10 people had died after the tsunami from a severe respiratory ailment, described as "severe shortness of breath." The first of these casualties had been reported about two days after the tsunami and the last on January 12.

Back to Kuala Lumpur to Arrange for Aid Shipments to Panton Labu
After doing some quick needs assessments and surveying the area during the night and the next day, we drove on further but did not observe any more refugee camps. A seven-hour drive took us back to Medan and the day after we were able to catch a flight back to Kuala Lumpur to deal with the logistics of moving the supplies, as well as a team of around 10 health care volunteers from Toronto, to the area we had assessed.

Yahya is in Kuala Lumpur, holding down the fort, shipping the supplies and taking care of the logistics of moving the team, etc. I am leaving for Sri Lanka on Jan. 22 with Asia Relief. From there, I plan to go back to Panton Labu for a site visit on Jan. 26. During this trip I will also revisit Banda Aceh.

I will keep you posted.