12 February 2010

Death, and Life in Acheh-1

Friday, August 1, 2008
The Malaysian Headquarters Tent under the National Security Division

On 26 Dec 2004, the worst disaster to hit humanity struck Banda Acheh, at the Northern tip of Sumatra at about 0930G. It seemed like a perfectly normal day at an hour when people were going about their daily business, when an earthquake measuring 8.9 Richter struck Banda Acheh and Meulaboh, unleashing a tsunami that devastated not just the Achenese province, but reached Penang, Phuket, India, Sri Lanka and went as far as Madagascar.

The world was frenetic with news that trickled out of Indonesia. Even with the spread of photographs in the media, the scale of devastation seemed beyond belief . On 28 December 2004, one Nuri, one set of crew and the Combat Air Rescue Team joined the international community in Medan, flying to Banda Acheh from Medan to obtain the initial information as to how Malaysia could respond to the needs of the water-scoured province. Accurate information was not available as the very infrastructure needed for the transmission of news was wrecked. But our Charlie, or C-130 Hercules aircraft had conducted proving fights into Landasan Udara Iskandar Muda Blang Bintang in Banda Acheh. The runway was declared safe, so the world could now pour into Acheh. However, refueling arrangements in Banda Acheh airfield had to be sourced and an agreement arrived at between Malaysia and Indonesia if we were to operate from Acheh itself. This would not only save operating costs but also preserve the aircraft hours so that they were not wasted in transit flying.

I was on Christmas leave till 02 Jan 05. As soon as I turned up for work, I was told to prepare to go to Acheh to replace the initial crew there. While I knew I had no choice in the matter, I had misgivings about being the Nuri detachment commander in Acheh. I was supposed to operate in the worst disaster ever to inflict the human race, according to Kofi Annan. I did not know what to expect, or whether I was even up to task.

My departure was set for 08 January. A huge number of personnel were gathered at air movements section, Subang Base. The army chaps were there, too. They were going in as doctors to aid the infirm, as engineers to provide reconstruction of roads and bridges and signallers to restore communications infrastructure. Wives were swarming the area, kids dashed about here and there and everywhere. After immigrations clearance, the time came for goodbye. I kissed my wife and kids, and exhorted my son to be on good behaviour and not trouble his mother with more than she had to handle as it was.

My heart had been in my throat all the time. Now it was the moment of truth. Could I handle Acheh? I had read that many of those who went there were unable to psychologically cope with the scale of human suffering they had witnessed. I boarded the Charlie and began to pray the Rosary. I would go in faith. I was being entrusted with this task, and I would be given whatever was needed for it.

The aircraft droned on to Acheh. I looked all around me to gauge the general mood of the other personnel. Many were asleep, as they would be if a military man isn't moving for a time span exceeding 5 seconds. Ah, how easy it is to be blissful if one could succumb to such herd sense. Nothing seemed to bother this lot.

After a length of time, I saw some excitement in the cabin. They guys were crowding around the windows. Acheh was in sight. I unbuckled and tried to get a glimpse myself. As the aircraft circled incessantly while awaiting its turn to land in an increasingly busy airfield, the Achenese landscape showed itself from below a thin layer of cloud, stretched and draped over the city like a funeral shroud.

I could not believe my eyes. There was nothing recognisable as infrastructure at all down below. I could see water, the river, and the sea. Layer upon layer of debris carpeted the ground. Skeletal remains of building structures that had survived collapse stood amongst the total ruin of other buildings which had yielded to the force of diabolically destructive waters. It was utter holocaust. But the view from 4000 feet was ghostly and grey through the cloud, with little sunlight penetrating its gloom to reach ground level. This morbid mask didn't reveal the full horror of the tsunami's wrath, as I was to see in my days to come in Acheh. After a while, disenchanted with the lack of visual detail and information from below, the guys settled down in their seats once again.

Finally, it was touchdown. As the Charlie taxied toward the military apron, I saw the Nuri parked on the grass. Okay, our guys must be somewhere here. The void hangar stood in the corner of the apron, stacked near to its ceiling with donated food and clothes. The Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) handled the crowds of tsunami victims milling around the area. Some were seeking food and clothes, some seeking lost ones, some seeking a way home to their village.

I retrieved my bag from the pile on the Charlie's ramp and walked toward the hangar. I spotted the expectant Nuri crew, their faces fatigued, but eyes wild with having seen much. The cursory greetings and handshakes were exchanged, and Capt Asari, the detachment commander and I chatted about the situation at hand for a while before deciding on an area familiarisation sortie. He had in fact, delayed his take-off to accommodate a famil sortie, as I was to be the detachment commander when he left the day after. We could now refuel in Acheh, so I was to continue operating from the airfield itself. He pointed me to the 180-pounder tent which was our home now, and I sought a camp bed for myself. The odour of old canvas which had seen too many rainstorms was thick in the growing heat, and I inhaled the familiar scent as I changed into my flying suit.
Barges Laid To Waste

My first sortie was to ferry Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) to their destinations, towns along the coast that had been disconnected from each other when the waves had swept away bridges and submerged roads. I obtained my passenger list from the Coordination Post (POSKO) at the TNI hangar, and the crewman got the mixed bag of people on board the Nuri. We took off and tracked north-west for the break in the mountain range known (to the Australians who had taken over air traffic control) as The Gap.

Ships tossed like toys

Crossing The Gap, the desolation hit my eyes. An immense cement factory lay wasted, with a ship inverted in its grounds. Looking below, the fury of the raging waters had flogged the land, where the ground upon which lives and homes had been built, had been scraped clean away in the undertow. I scanned the map, and I could trace discrepancies between the map and the ground that told me that the coastline itself had been altered. The hills which had once gently led the gradient slopes into the seaside plains now plunged directly into the restless waters. Trees and land up to two hundred feet from the sea's edge had been gouged out, leaving the scarred rock to face the remaining onslaught of a temperamental surf. Further down, as the flight progressed, I saw floors and wells fringing the fragments of road, tragic remnants of homes which had been swept away with all that they held within them.

The quarry and plant destroyed

Capt Asari pointed out the various towns as we passed them. The factory was at Lokhnga, then came Lamno, then Girik, next was a crescent cove called Tjalang, and at the end of our route was Meulaboh. Approximately 270 kilometres of coastline, with absolutely nothing left. Not even greenery, from water's edge to about 10 kilometres inland, depending on the terrain, its obstacles and the way the waters would have swirled and eddied. Red clay frescoed the vista. A wave of deep mourning could be sensed in the land, in the sea and in the air. Something had happened here, which was beyond human reckoning.

Meulaboh was in sight. I transmitted my intention to land at Kem JPK (pronounced Ja-Pa-Keh under Indonesian phonetics) to the ground controller. This was yet another POSKO set up by the TNI for the repatriation of IDPs. Orbiting the field that was Kem JPK, I sized-up the field, the TNI-AU (Angkatan Udara) Super Puma parked there and the sufficiency of the remaining grass area for a Nuri. All was in order and the Nuri was set on finals to land and we beat into a touchdown.

On ground, hand signals were used to negotiate with the TNI coordinators as to how many passengers we could offer to take back to Banda Acheh. They would indicate 15 with their fingers. We would look at the fuel gauges, note the lift-off weight and wave No, 9! Then they would acknowledge 9 with their fingers and walk 9 people to the Nuri. The crewman would call out the all-up weight, and we would lift-off vertically and climb away for Banda Acheh. This was how aircraft captains had to wheel and deal every day, every task, with TNI-AU. I thought them hard-nosed, thick-skinned and shameless in the outlandish requests they made during my first few days there. But this was a land of vortexed need. They had no limit to what they wanted, any more than a limit was placed on the severity of their loss. Acheh was the event horizon for international aid. Could they be blamed?

After that famil flight, Asari left me to fly till last light with Leftenant Azlan, my copilot who was involved with me during the fighter jock's rescue. Another 3 sorties and 6 hours were clocked that day. I began to learn the route, its turbulent spots, the landmarks and the best approaches into the various towns along the coast as well as inland landing points.

Safety was a serious issue in this chaotic land. The local air traffic controller was not used to handling more than two aircraft at a time. Banda Acheh had scant scheduled flights. Now, the traffic density was so heavy at no less than 25 helicopters in the air at any given moment. He couldn't cope. Near-misses were reported to the POSKO during the nightly debrief, and the TNI-AU seceded air traffic control to the Royal Australian Air Force. Departure and recovery procedures, reporting points and circuit heights were quickly drafted for all to comply to, and just as quickly and repetitively transgressed by American Marine pilots. They had a habit of flying below the established height, and popping up as they liked, causing us to be rather twitchy while flying. If they had a habit of reporting their position, it may have eased the tension of maintaining a sharp lookout, but they just flew like a bunch of cowboys. Hmmm......so much for leaving the direction that the world should take in their hands.

At day's end, I had the Nuri shut down and its night-stop kit used for plugging air intake ports, the tail rotor clamped down with a gust-lock and the water-proof tarp which covered the cockpit and nose section all gartered into place. We called it the Nuri's jammies!

Our military cookhouse which fed everybody
Then we gathered at the "cook-house". This was a tent with two humungous woks that were used for cooking our military rations. Just two Rapid Deployment Force corporals from the Royal Rangers' elite 10th Para Brigade managed the miracle of cooking breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner from military component rations without break or delay. They catered to us air force boys, the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, journalists from the Malaysian media, the SMART disaster relief team and the National Security Division guys, and sometimes soldiers from TNI-AD (Angkatan Darat). The number averaged 600 mouths to feed, and not on a controlled quantity as we comprised mostly men! These two chaps were OUR HEROES!!

Nightfall on the airfield was iridescent, and rapidly surrendered to deep black velvet of night, bejewelled skies backdropped against the incessant noise from trucks and people moving in and out of the area. I delayed my bath till darkness had come, as I wanted to remain cool after the 40+ degree temperatures of day. My comfort was reading The Lord Of The Rings by fluorescent light under the cover of the 180-pounder tent. Right outside its fabric walls were hundreds of little one-man and two-man tents pitched by volunteers from various countries.

Nearer the base headquarters and air movements section were groups from China. Closer to us were volunteers from various Islamic missionaries from Indonesia, most likely Achenese, as Acheh was known as the "Corridor to Mecca". Further away to the road leading out of the airfiled was the Pakistani army tentage. These guys were given the clearance by TNI to build their little field toilets near their camp. To minimsie damage to the land, we Malaysians were not, initially, allowed to do this. We had to share our defecating daily with 800 TNI KOPASSUS (Special Forces) chaps using 6 latrines with no flush or taps. It was a little gruesome at first, but the mind and body quickly improvises and adapts.

Sleep would not come easily. I walked out of the tent toward the hangar. My men were seated upon piles of packed clothing, smoking, snacking on rations and drinking kopi Acheh. I chatted with them, and listened to their grouses. They were not quite sure what the mission was here. There was no sign of military leadership from the country. It appeard that we were sent here and we would have to deal with the situation by ourselves. I could sense that their faith in the air force higher echelon leadership was wavering. Yet, I could glean from their chat, that morale was sky-high. This was the very kind of operational theatre they wanted to work in. There was an opportunity to do things. And there was so much that could be done.

We continued yakking till the wee hours of the morning, because as fatigued as we were, sleep would not have us yet. So we persisted with all kinds of talk till we could keep our eyes open no more. I walked back to the tent and slept the restless sleep of one always on guard, for...aftershocks, second waves, whatever.
The first day passed with not much event, but eventfully all the same. I can hack this, I thought.

Yes, I can hack this. This is going to be loads of fun.

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