JANUARY 24, 2005






Post-tsunami challenges range from
mass graves to regional conflicts

By Father John Prior, SVD
Special to The Voice

I live in Flores, eastern Indonesia, some 3,000 kilometres from the earth/sea quake that hit Aceh, North Sumatra and Nias Island on Dec. 26. I do not need to paint a graphic picture of that event; you have seen those on your electronic media. I shall not even give you human interest stories; you already have seen and heard of personal and family tragedies and the occasional miracle survival. Allow me, three weeks after the horrific disaster, to make the following observations:

Implications of mass graves
The worst hit areas in Indonesia are the towns and villages along the West coast of Sumatra and the much smaller island of Nias — a largely Muslim community but with a significant Christian minority.

With over 100,000 bodies to dispose of, only half that number had been “buried” during the first two weeks, the rest are still rotting in the streets, or floating down rivers, or are under rubble. Yes, even three weeks after the catastrophe the stench of rotting bodies is overwhelming.

Many bodies have been bulldozed into mass graves without identification or religious ritual. This will be traumatic for surviving relatives later, for there will be no identification through photos etc. This might well also complicate compensation later, for little could be done to obtain proper evidence of who was killed. Government files and family records were destroyed in the surge. Over a dozen heads of local government (mayors) are still unaccounted for.

Christian-Muslim cooperation
Immediate material aid is sufficient. Indeed it has been piling up at Medan airport and at military airports in Jakarta and elsewhere. The immediate need is for distribution. Nine USA helicopter are now making frequent trips every day. Along with distribution there is need for medical volunteers, and also volunteers who can help the people with infrastructure rehabilitation. Clearly all outside help should collaborate with local people and locally-rooted organizations.

There are two complicating factors. First, Aceh is the most Islamic of all districts in Indonesia with Syariah (Islamic) law in force. Christians in Jakarta and throughout Indonesia were immediate in their substantial and significant aid.

But this has to be handled with great sensitivity. Christian volunteers are working alongside Muslim colleagues to avoid accusations of “Christianization.” This is “prophetic dialogue” in action.

Challenges of regional conflicts
Another complicating factor is that Aceh has been a war zone since the mid-1980s and therefore under the control of the army and police. Oil rich but economically poor Aceh has a longstanding independence movement.

And this is a key dilemma: the armed forces have the logistics to open up roads and fly in essential food. And yet for over two decades they have faced the Acehnese as enemies rather than fellow Muslims, as rebels rather than fellow citizens. Soldiers who have been shooting “enemies” are now asked to feed them.

You can imagine the psychological conflict on both sides. This partly explains the slow response of the government during the first week after the tragedy. Thus, voluntary assistance is important. Understandably, people are suspicious of the army.

Already there are clashes between the army and GAM (Achenese Independence Movement). The army is moving to coordinate all aid and restrict access everywhere outside the three larger towns. Overall coordination is vital – but not only under the Indonesian armed forces, but through a coalition with the Indonesian government, the UN and civil society.

Voluntary assistance via mosques, civil society and the churches is also important because we know that governments tend to use situations to their advantage. Food might well be used to “win hearts and minds” but perhaps also to punish Acehnese resistance fighters – as was done in East Timor in the late 1970s.

The catastrophic humanitarian disaster is complicated by political resentment. It will be important to monitor aid: Will “friends” be rewarded while “enemies” punished? The apostle Paul wrote: “If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink…” (Rm 12:20).

Also, disasters in the past have become opportunities for removing indigenous people from their ancestral homes and opening the way for profitable conglomerates. No natural disaster remains purely natural for long.

Religious and political sensitivities
The JPIC networks of the Indonesian Jesuits and Franciscans were cooperating with Muslim colleagues from day one. They are very much in touch regarding both humanitarian issues, human rights concerns and religious sensitivities.

The Indonesian Bishops’ Crisis Centre is collaborating with SEFA – a network of Muslim youth in Aceh with whom the Bishops’ Centre has had contact over the years.

The Crisis Centre has opened a website to respond to the need for transparency and accountability. It can be accessed through Plans are still short term — two-weeks at a time.

The most vulnerable are the orphans. The need is for shelter, for schooling, for counselling. Thousands of teachers were victims. Also widows have lost their anchor in a patriarchal society and need to find strength in solidarity. Then there are the aged and the disabled who need hope and protection.

Alongside immediate aid comes the first stage of rehabilitation – housing, livelihood materials and the reviving of locally-based trades.

Complicating the situation is that the poor, who usually save their money in local banks in their villages, have lost all records of their savings both at home and at the banks which did not have computer records. Add to this is the difficulty of living without identity cards that were lost in the water. Now, in addition to dealing with the loss of all their material possessions, the poor have no way of make a credible claim to their bank accounts.

What can you do?
•Donations to pay for the transportation and distribution of food and medicine. Donations to pay for the volunteers who are taking aid to the survivors.

The Divine Word Missionaries and Holy Spirit Sisters are sending Sisters and seminarians – together with Muslim youth and under the aegis of Islamic organizations and NGOs — to distribute aid. Just as importantly they will listen to traumatized people and so help with counseling and start the process of rebuilding hope in a truly hopeless situation.

•Keep your government on its toes to keep its promises of aid. Governments have short memories, but the rebuilding will take five years at the very least. Watch how your government’s aid is distributed and note who benefits. See what other interests are at work (Mobil-Exxon has big oil interests in Aceh.)

•Become more ecologically aware and active. Push governments at local, regional and national levels to be more ecologically-sensitive. All of us can live more ecologically-friendly lives that do not over-heat the earth. This massive disaster gives us a chance to think about soil, about forests, about water, about food, about others – about love.

A final sermon: don’t just send money to a charity; don’t simply attend an aid concert. Don’t simply open up your conscience to the victims and survivors.

And, don’t stop opening up your heart in prayer to God.

(Divine Word Father John Mansford Prior, a native of England, has lived in Indonesia since 1973 as a parish priest, retreat director and researcher. He currently teaching the theology of mission at the major seminary in Puslit Candraditya, Indonesia. He can be reached at:


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