12 February 2010

Death and Life in Acheh-2

View of the TNI hangar from whence we operated

A tremor.

It is an earthpulse, but with a rhythm that is far from comforting. One fine morning in Acheh, just before sunrise, I was still deep in a restless sleep when I felt someone rocking my campbed as if he was trying to wake me up. When the stirring finally pushed past my dream state and awakened me, I opened my eyes to find that my crew was fast asleep in their individual campbeds. Then I realised that I had felt a tremor. I could no longer sleep. It was just too close to sunrise, and I had to adhere to flying discipline and pre-flight check my aircraft before the haggling at POSKO began over the day's passenger and freight list.

So I queued up at the latrines for the obvious and then queued up after TNI personnel washing their breakfast items, at the tap at the side of the hangar, to have my bath, out in the open air before the arrival of first light. Then it was a walk to the tent and a change into my flying suit. That was how each day began.

A few days ago, I was thoroughly depressed to find that in my sleep, I had let my The Lord Of The Rings book slip over the edge of my bed, and it had sucked up muddy water from the ground. It was illegible and no way any form of damage control would render it legible ever again. This was my Castaway Mr Wilson, my Good Man Friday, here in this land that seemed forsaken. I was sad, and I felt that I could not just toss the book into the garbage. So I waited a few days for it to dry, and I took it to the garbage heap that was smouldering behind our 'cookhouse'. There, I burned the book, one page after another. As I stood there, willing each page to get lit, a few volunteers from Muslim religious camps asked me, "Bakar apa itu? Injil?" I was horrified that their first thought as to what I was burning would have been a Bible. What manner of prejudice reigned here? Was this why the Chinese population in Acheh was a smidgin 3 percent of the whole? Not wanting to be the catalyst of either a crusade or a jihad, I continued to burn the book in silence and then prepared for an afternoon sortie of flying the coastal route to Meulaboh.
C-130 Hercules supplying aid while we circle overhead seeking a landing point

The coastal route down to Meulaboh and back was beginning to be a mapless routine. One of my tasks was to help the Pakistani Army establish a field hospital over one of the stricken areas, and to this end, I soon became fast friends with the Battalion Commander, Lt Col Ayoob, Army Engineering Regiment. He passed a remark, in front of my Commanding Officer of how the way I spoke English reminded him of his varsity days in Oxford. That made my CO sneer in disgust, but garnered me an invitation, family and all, to Lt Col Ayoob's home in Pakistan, an invitation I may have to experience reincarnation in order to see to fruition. His officers also became good friends with me, and one hunger-inducing midday, their little van rolled onto the dispersal area with its rear doors open, and the Pakistani Army officers beckoning wildly for me to approach. I was waiting for the Nuri to be refuelled, so I hobbled over and to my crazed delight, there were loads of chappatis and dahl laid out on the van's deck. I was given a generous helping on an eversilver platter, which I gladly put away unabashedly. My trusty co-pilot, Lt Ramamurty, refused to join in the feasting. When I enquired of him as to why, he muttered something about never accepting anything from a Pakistani. I concluded that this, like many other irrationalities, must be a cultural thing.

We operated alongside Chinooks and Pumas
The Nuri detachment was also tasked with helping the UN establish their own field hospitals in selected areas between Lokhnga and Meulaboh. One big grizzly yank from the World Food Program was thoroughly displeased that we were not ready at 0600 Golf Time to ferry his goods out. I reasoned that until POSKO provided us with a movement sheet and take-off time, I would not be moving anyone's goods. He made his displeasure known in the dictatorial way that made me rethink my esteem for the UN bodies. I was to take off as he expected; six o'clock meant six o'clock. I walked away but not without feeling that these guys were not here in Indonesia's interest, but their own. They were to be known as the gods who came to the Acheh's succour, to decry the injustice of the central government's human rights abuses in Acheh and to eventually lobby for autonomy of Acheh. It is easier to launder your own country's corporate and governmental violation of ethics amongst those too accursed to care where aid comes from, and poster-child yourself as conscientious. The Constant Gardener was dead accurate about this concept.
My workmates in the airfield

One sleepless night as I wandered from tent to tent looking into the morale of the men, I ended up chatting with some Achenese doctors who had flipped since the tsunami had swept their families away. They were traumatised, and could not think on the job any longer, so they hung around the POSKO hangar all day. I suppose not being able to think on the job had nothing to do with the time-efficient 2-year period Acheh took to produce a doctor. My crewman, Flight Sergeant Ali, brewed a jug of kopi Acheh which was welcomed by those of us seated on heaps of clothing and rations. Dipping some Harimau biscuits in the creamy brew, we continued chatting till we felt sleep about to overtake us. Thus began my love for kopi Acheh.
Relief rations were our armchairs

So at the end of the week, I was given a little surprise when the POSKO staff told me I was being sought by a Kapten Indan Gilang, a Super Puma pilot from the TNI-AU (Indonesian Air Force) whom I had flown with during 2004's Elang Malindo, the Indonesian-Malaysian air forces joint exercise, in Kuantan. He insisted on taking me out for...kopi Acheh! Lt Murty and I were picked up by a military MPV and whisked with Kapt Indan to a coffee shop that looked like it would collapse on a sneeze. It just didn't look structurally sound. We got ourselves a table and started exchanging news on service and personal developments since our joint exercise. Kapt Indan kept my glass of kopi Acheh filled, and before the night was done, I had downed 5 glasses, all sacharine sweet!! I must thank him, for the first time ever in my life, for an experience of sleeplessness due to coffee. I normally take coffee as a nightcap.

A TNI-AU Puma on start-up
Although Acheh saw me taking part in humanitarian assistance, I admit that I did not always live up to the altruistic call to serve the needy. An elderly man of about 55 and carrying a toddler, both who had naught to wear but the pants hanging around their waists asked me to take them to Meulaboh. I advised them to get registered at POSKO to be manifested. A few minutes later I saw him wandering around, toddler on his hip, still looking only for a way to Meulaboh. He probably couldn't bribe his way home, and I was still an idiot for thinking that this land bore a 'right' way to conduct humanitarian relief operations. If I had a failure to recount of my mission in Acheh, this would be it. I should have just taken him on board in my own right as an aircraft captain the way other aircraft captains were taking their locally acquired girlfriends for sightseeing. My disappointment was soon washed away as my first two weeks in Acheh drew to a close and I was homeward bound.
TNI-AD Landing Ship Tanks supplying lumber for the rebuilding of Tjalang

But two weeks after getting home to Kuala Lumpur, a shortage of aircrew meant that I was to go back again to Acheh. And so back I was. By this time, there was less to discover but more to deal with. My sorties southbound revealed that green had come back to the land, that grass was growing again, and that the trees had begun to put forth their leaves. There were signs of hope and recovery in Acheh. Overhead Tjalang, I spotted TNI-AD (Indonesian Army) ships-yes, army ships!!-unloading lumber so that homes could be rebuilt in the spartan way that would sustain livelihoods in the immediate term.

Cockpit view of the destruction, 260 km of the same thing all along Banda Acheh to Meulaboh
My greatest thrill at this time was being the lead helicopter for Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's visit as Defence Minister to Acheh. Along with me in Acheh were two of my Royal Military College batchmates from the army; Maj Ahmad, who was working in the National Security Division and Major Hanafi who was from Army PR and managed the Malaysian press in Acheh. I spent many sessions between resupply and communications flight sorties in the NSD's tent, planning the flight profile and passenger load with officers from the NSD. Of course it was fun to work with my batchmates. Their pride in working with me was mutual, and evident. All was set and of all dates, Datuk Seri Najib's visit was scheduled for 14 Feb 05!!
Turn-around checks in the 40 degree heat of Acheh

On 13 Feb, the Blackhawk and S61N1 Agusta arrived in Banda Acheh, joining the two-Nuri detachment for the purpose of the ministerial visit, apparently to officiate a Malaysian-run orphanage in Jhanto, smack in the middle of the Achenese province, away from the risky coastlines. We greeted the crew with joy, and were happy to relieve them of leftover VIP grade in-flight rations. After 10 days on my second tour of duty, I could feel my body lacking some vitamins, so I went for the oranges first. We loathed in-flight rations when we were in the squadron, but here in Acheh it was up for grabs! We had improved on rations in Acheh; we were no longer eating combat component rations, but were supplied with fresh rations from Subang through the many C-130 flights between Acheh and Subang base. Our cook was from the officers' mess in Subang base, and he was creative as well as a gifted cook. Yet, the lack of fruit was noticeable. After a chinwag with the VIP aircrew, we settled down for the evening. They took off for Medan for their night-stop whilst the Nuri and her crew remained ever faithfully embedded in Banda Acheh airfield.

The ministerial party arrived early the next morning on board the RMAF Boeing 737 Business Jet and were transferred to the Blackhawk and the Agusta N1. The limited space on a Blackhawk converted for VIP flights meant that many of the ministers would have to, though much to their pampered dread, board the Nuris for a very long tour of Acheh.
Lift-off from the dispersal

The first task at hand was that I would show them the way to Meulaboh. I called start-up to the Royal Australian Air Force air traffic controllers who had taken over the tower. Angkasa 760 Combined, request start, four-ship formation for Meulaboh. The ATC was dumbfounded for a moment. They knew us as Angkasa 760 Alpha and Bravo, but four ships now?? "Angkasa 760 you seem to be getting bigger everyday." Angkasa 760 Combined, that's how it is when you're raised on homegrown fresh cow's milk. I could hear a short burst of laughter inadvertantly transmitted over the air as the air traffic controllers chuckled for a moment. "Angkasa 760 Combined, clear start for Meulaboh."

Once I saw that all 4 helicopters were rotor engaged, I lead the aircraft on a taxy out to an intersection take-off. This was uneventful except for the fact that I was unfamiliar with the Agusta N1's deplorable airspeed control. I was almost at The Gap when Kapt Azrin, the Blackhawk pilot, yelled over the radio, "Maj Jeffrey, SLOW DOWN, SLOW DOWN!!! Kapt Syahfril is still within aerodrome and has not caught up with us!!!" So after about 8 orbits overhead the city of Banda Acheh, the Agusta formated on us and we proceeded through The Gap and went feet dry for Lamno, Tjalang and thence to Meulaboh.

We orbited Meulaboh to allow the ministers a view of the devastation, then tracked back through Banda Acheh for Jantho. This northbound route was to be feet wet for traffic separation. It was already past ten, and the coastal valley winds brought turbulence that buffeted the aircraft without observing VIP protocol. An updraft tossed the Agusta vertically, causing the saucer of salted peanuts that the stewardess had served Datuk Seri Najib to scatter all over the deck of the aircraft. I wished the VIP crew could tell me something new. He spilled his seed (kacang dia berterabur), I was to hear from the VIP crew as they described their first experience of Acheh's turbulence.I observed that yes, I could see the Agusta pogoing like a carousel pony. Well, we who dwelt long in Banda Acheh had developed better anticipation to counter these updrafts.

At Jantho, the Defence Minister was escorted by the Governor of Acheh into the school grounds. In between classroom blocks, tents were pitched over the grass with service-type campbeds and blankets and a copy of the Qur'an on each pillow. After a rousing, empassioned speech about how when Acheh wept, Malaysia wept, Datuk Seri Najib officiated the 'orphanage'. A schoolbag and stationery for each orphan was awarded, with good PR-statement affection on display. Then was lunch, then we took off from Jantho for Kem Beruang Hitam, the TNI-AD's anti-separatist operational camp in the foothills of The Gap. We know now what we didn't know then, that after our departure, the tents were taken down and all bedding packed. It was a show. No orphanage was built until 2007.

We then landed in Kem Beruang Hitam, 4-ship formation style, and the Defence Minister was greeted by the camp's battalion commander and given a brief on the current anti-separatist operations alongside the TNI KOPASSUS or Special Forces corpse collecting operations and relief work in all POSKOs throughout Acheh. Once this was done, we departed for Banda Acheh, where the Defence Minister and his party boarded the Boeing Business Jet for Subang air base. The Blackhawk and the Agusta returned to night stop at Medan before returning home the next day, whilst the Nuri detachment returned of course, to the cookhouse and refugee tents of Landasan Udara Sultan Iskandar Muda Blang Bintang, Banda Acheh.
There are many things I will remember of my 26 days in Acheh. The cat that was terrified as it was "treed" up our Nuri's portside undercarriage one misty morning, surrounded by baying dogs thirsty for blood and hungry for fresh kitten meat, just as the ground crew and I were walking out for a pre-flight check. The quiet demeanour of Tun Daim Zainuddin as we took him on a sortie to Meulaboh. Having the esteemed ex Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad as my passenger on a round trip to Meulaboh. Flying to the warehouses in Lokhsemawe port to pay advanced salaries to the navy and army men involved in unloading goods from the KD Mahawangsa for a road trip to bring said goods to the needy in Acheh. Here, I was treated to more kopi Acheh, biasa punya, "standard version", meaning unlaced with narcotics. Other things too, will I remember of the fellowships made, which are different from the bonds of friendship forged under comfort. The good Dr Razak from Mercy Malaysia, who treated me to a sumptuous lunch in a rustic restaurant on the way to town. The offshore power generator ship sitting squat in the middle of town after it was carried in by the tsunami, now turned into a monument of the catastrophe. The French Armee D'La Aire Puma pilots who upon seeing the Malaysians flying 30 feet off sea level bound for Acheh, would descend from the procedural 500 feet and fly in company with us. Not for long, as even those old aircraft were faster than the old lady we call the Nuri, and in a few minutes would cruise past us, unable to hold down to our speed.

I was scheduled to return on 15 Feb 05. I was sad, as usual, to hand over duties to another team of Acheh-newbie pilots and crewmen, concerned over the internal conflicts they would face in the execution of duties in this harsh land. I realised later that they suffered no such conflict, as they did exactly as they pleased in Acheh, even snagging the aircraft in Lamno on a dubious unserviceability to spend a night with their girlfriends. So much for being an ambassador for Malaysia, let alone representing the professionalism of air force helicopter pilots. How depressing to be known amongst the French, the Spaniards, the Pakistanis, the Germans and your countrymen for executing tasks with flair, only to have such opinions eroded by the gross idiocy of those who succeed you by placing self above service.

I was "rewarded" handsomely for the excellence I had shown to all VIPs and foreign nations upon my return to Malaysia. Hardly had I washed my flying suits when my boss called me with the happy news that I was posted to MINDEF, to serve as the Staff Officer 2-Helicopter, under the Air Operations Commander. Inside, I felt that my wings had been clipped. To be behind a desk after flying in an operational theater like Acheh was to me a prison sentence.

But on the bright side, so began my 3 year stint as a staff officer, and the comfort of knowing what undisturbed weekends were like.

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