Nias Diary by Alex Renton from April 2005

By Alex Renton

1st April 2005

The Oxfam helicopter's cargo for Nias island is grimly simple - fuel and body bags. Squeezed between the drums are four staff to fill out the five-strong team that arrived in Gunungsitoli on Tuesday, just 11 hours after the earthquake hit. There's water supply expert Gerry O'Sullivan, and Benny Usdianto and Banu Subagyo, senior conflict and disaster management staff from Oxfam's Jakarta office. And me, to deal with the media requests so the team can get on with the important work.

The devastation on downtown NiasNias is very remote - 150km across the sea from the Sumatran mainland and three hours flying time from Oxfam International's main tsunami relief base in Banda Aceh. As we fly in low we stare at the devastation. It's like someone has stamped all over the town. On some of the rubble piles sit the huge conical roofs that are a Nias tradition, intact, looking like abandoned hats.

The helicopter sets down for just a few minutes, rotors still turning, in the centre of a football pitch. Islanders run out to help roll the 200 litre diesel barrels off the chopper and into a waiting truck.

The diesel is life blood for the water distribution Oxfam set up in Gunungsitoli, Nias' main town, within hours of the quake. It's needed to run pumps and generators, and the trucks that deliver water to the five bladder tanks the team has set up around town. Gareth Pryce-Jones, Oxfam's project manager on the island, says that already we're supplying the water needs of 10,000 people a day in the town. That's one in seven of the town's population.

It's an achievement, in a place where there's no mains power and the quake-cracked roads make movement round town on anything bigger than a motorbike near impossible. "The water system is ripped apart," says Nigel Smith, Oxfam public health engineer. But we're getting on top of it. Other news is not good. The body count is approaching 400, and the sweetish stench from the levelled buildings around the town tells us that there are many more corpses still to be found. Heavy lifting gear is only just arriving.

Food is a problem, too. With shops closed, and food aid taking a six hour sea route from the mainland, people in the tent-camps around the town are beginning to complain of hunger. We can only begin to guess what's going on in the rest of this mountainous island, home to some 750,000 people. But the most worrying thing is the aftershocks that, every couple of hours, make the earth quiver under our feet. It's very scary - like standing on jelly.

2nd April 2005

The Oxfam office is a couple of rooms and a shack on the roof of a family house in the town centre. In the family's kitchen I meet 58-year-old Chatimah Tanjung. She's the sister of our host, and she has come down from her village six kilometres away with terrible news. Her daughter and a granddaughter died on Monday night, she tells us. "I was lucky," says Mrs Tanjung "I was praying, and our prayer place is right beside the door. I was pinned down by a roof beam, but I managed to wriggle out. Then the neighbours helped me dig in the rubble. I found my husband - he's now in hospital. But my daughter and my other daughter's child were crushed." The girl was 15, and the grand-daughter just one-and-a-half. Mrs Tanjung dabs at her tears with her headscarf. She needs rice to feed the rest of the family.

The school where she teaches is destroyed, she tells us and most of the 200 people from the village of Moawo are still up in the hills above Gunungsitoli, living under plastic sheeting. "They have little food - but they don't want to come back to the village - they are terrified of a tsunami coming." We take the details - teams from different aid agencies are beginning assessments of need in different communities; this information will be fed into that.

Distributing food in NiasThe office is pandemonium. There are now 25 local people working for Oxfam, and we're sharing the three rooms with an Oxfam partner, the Indonesian agency YEU, who have a first aid clinic on the porch. There is a crowd of toddlers all with dressings on their faces or legs - most of their mothers have wounds too, all from the scramble out of collapsing buildings. Just outside the front door is a packed camp of people made homeless by the quake - 400 or so of them living under plastic awnings in a space hardly the size of a tennis court. On the steps of the half-ruined mosque that overlooks the site, is an Oxfam water bladder - a great flat yellow balloon holding 10,000 litres of water. A pipe from it runs to a tap-stand where the people of the camp can get water. The queue for water stretches out of the camp and into the main road.

In the office, Banu is busy working out a plan with the local NGOs for distribution of the aid we're bringing in by boat tomorrow morning - how do you hand out rice, noodles, blankets and clothing with causing a riot? Benny and public health adviser Marguerite Hondow are interviewing Nias people, to select some public health educators. They will go round the displaced people's camps advising people how to stay clean and healthy in these hot, sweaty conditions. Other staff from Oxfam's tsunami office are working on latrine construction, and finding materials we can use.

Everyone's acutely conscious that we know very little of what's going on outside town. Clearly there are a lot of people in the hills - the hundreds of deserted houses tell you that. So we set off to have a look.

The battered van lurches over the cracks in the tarmac as we try to get out of town - the only passable bridge over the river is reached by a scary lurch over a narrow bit of road that's still collapsing into the gulf on either side of it. The town centre looks as though it's been bombed. Buildings that were three or four storeys are collapsed in neat heaps as though they suddenly decided to sit down - perhaps 70 per cent are now just rubble. Amazingly, people have begun to open shops in the nooks and holes in the ruins.

But ten minutes up into the hills you realise that it's not just town that has been hit. The earthquake has been cruelly random - taking out a house here, a church there. Every mile or so there's another camp, usually just some plastic sheeting on bamboo poles, under which whole families huddle around sad piles of their rescued possessions. It's very hot, at least 35 degrees, and humid.

We stop and talk at each encampment. Few people have had any help. Their major concern is lack of food. If they can buy rice they find that the price has doubled. Water seems to be less of a problem, here beyond the mains system. It's the end of the rainy season and the wells and springs are generally still usable. In one village, Desa Boyo, Marguerite spots that people are using the same stream to wash, collect drinking water and defecate - not healthy at all.

But when we talk to them we find this is nothing to do with the earthquake: it's how they've always done it. In impoverished Indonesia Nias is very poor - 57 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. We mark the place as a hotspot for the public health team and also for the squad of local people we've hired as latrine diggers under Andris, one of the Aceh staff.

Car squashed by the quakeIn the evening, the different NGOs meet to swap information and coordinate plans. There's an estimate of 75,000 homeless people, one in ten - Oxfam has 500 tents it can devote to this effort. World Food Programme says it has at last got in 200 tonnes of rice in - distribution will start by boat around the island in the morning. Everyone talks of frustration. Most roads, including the airport one, are unusable except by motorbike; the port is blocked by the crowds trying to leave the island. Lack of fuel limits helicopter operations. Among the islanders there is a rumour, repeated everywhere, that the island has started to sink. In fact, in some places the opposite is true: on the west side, the coastline has risen by as much as two metres, bringing the coral reef above sea level. This means the fishermen cannot get their boats out.

There's some good news - a survivor has been pulled out of the Gunungsitoli, after five days in this amazing heat. But the death toll is now 444, and sure to rise further. Then a terrible rumour goes round - an Australian navy helicopter working in the south of the island has crashed. It turns out to be true - nine people have been killed.

3rd April 2005

No one is sleeping well. Lying in our camp beds you can really feel the earth tremors: the cracks in the walls of the beach cabins where the Oxfam staff are staying, three to a room, seem to be widening. We have a plan to run up the hill behind us if a quake seems really heavy - but in the dark that's going to be hard. We agree we'll try and get some tents up tonight.

A cargo boat has arrived from the mainland, full of Oxfam supplies for the people in the camps - rice, noodles, blankets, jerry cans and clothes. It all takes a day in the chaos of the Gunungsitoli dock to unload it, but by early afternoon YEU are able to start distributing around the mosque camp. It's not easy - people go wild as soon as they see the truck pull up.

We drive out of town to find out what damage has been done to the springs that are the source for the water mains. As we pass them we hear singing from the full churches- we wonder if anyone has heard that the Pope is dead. Suddenly we see one congregation running full tilt into the street, bricks from the damaged building falling behind them. Another tremor. In the villages the schools seem to have been badly hit - we don't find any standing. Government buildings tend to be poorly constructed, the Indonesian staff say.

Oxfam water in Nias IDP CampUp on the hill from which 10% of the town's water once came, we find the system of tanks and ducts almost completely dry. Where's the water gone? We poke around in the undergrowth - like a surgeon looking for a torn artery. Nigel Smith reckons the shakes have caused the spring to fall, literally, down through the hill. A flow of clay-laden water into the river below seems to confirm this. We discuss the problem with Ferdinand Mendrova, the head of the island's water authority. He's worked very hard with the Oxfam team for the last five days, even though his own house is destroyed and his family living in an IDP camp beside the water board's office. Ferdinand and Nigel reckon that they can best solve this problem by setting up a plant to clean and pump the water straight from the river. Heavy Oxfam pumps and pipes are due to arrive on a flight from UK in the next day or so.

Back at the office we all eat lunch - rice and eggs with some chilli. It's what the people in the camp a few yards away are eating too. Suddenly there's a shout - "Geumpa - tua, tua!" Earthquake! Everyone rushes outside, including the cook, who is still holding a spatula with egg on it. A little later, a house behind the office collapses with a screech and a crash. Later we hear that one of the Nias staff member's house went down, too.

Despite the interruptions, the staff feel they have had a good day. Banu and the partners have got a scheme up and running to distribute aid supplies in an orderly way; Benny is pleased that he's recruited and started training two men and two women who will start the public health promotion work. Jerry and water engineer Helen Meekings have rigged up more trucks as mobile water deliverers. Tomorrow morning we expect a boat to arrive from Banda Aceh, laden with the heavy water equipment and purifying gear from Britain.

4th April 2005

Aidflight arrivesThe boat arrives. She's a traditional, wooden cargo boat, called Camar Laut or Seabird - she's sailed round from northern Sumatra overnight. It seems a fitting end to a trip that started with a jet airplane out of the UK on Saturday. When she pulls into the dock Gareth Pryce Jones and translator Roos Afrida, who's from Aceh, cheer. This is a good moment. Now we can get to work on the town's mains water system. Then the team start the unloading.

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