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Update No. 97/02 on ICRC activities in Irian Jaya

15-12-1997 Operational Update

Results come in from the survey

Alama is a tiny settlement of 261 inhabitants, situated at 1,000 m altitude about a half-hour flight north-east from Timika. It consists of an airstrip, an Indonesian army outpost and a few houses, lost in the middle of the primary forest. Early warning signals had come out of the village that the health and food situation was bad and likely to deteriorate.

Of the 82 children in Alama, 37 are suffering severe malnutrition. Access to food had apparently been seriously hampered, as all the villagers had fled to the jungle in 1996, returning only in May this year in the hope of resuming a normal life. The fields cultivated during this time are a 24-hour walk away, and the crops that they yielded, as well as being nutritionally insufficient, are more or less exhausted. The people have now cleared the land for new gardens near the village, but have only just planted seeds as there has been no rain for months. They will have to wait six months for the next sweet potato harvest. Fruit can be collected from the pandanus tree, but not until January.

Health conditions in Alama are very poor, with a large number of respiratory tract and worm infections and a high incidence of malaria, scabies and anaemia. Weakened by malnutrition, 16 villagers died in November and ten in October, mostly young children. The cold and wet conditions caused by the rainy season have made things worse, although the supply of clean water is no longer a problem.

On 19 November three ICRC delegates and three Indonesian Red Cross Society (PMI) members conducted a mission to Irian Jaya to assess the people's nutritional, hygiene and med ical situation, set up the infrastructure for a forthcoming operation and provide emergency assistance. The above information is similar for the nine villages visited so far by the team in the area north and north-east of Timika. Generally speaking, the immediate future looks extremely bleak. Harvests have failed and crops are rotting; malaria is rife and vulnerability to disease is being exacerbated by widespread malnutrition.

The ICRC's response

In the case of Alama, the team has already delivered medicine to the local health worker and handed out 100 g of food per person. Several hundred kilos of rice have followed, and further distributions are planned.

Overall, a two-pronged approach has been adopted: assistance is being brought in while the survey of other villages continues. In the short term, 2,500 beneficiaries will receive high-protein biscuits. Rice and cooking utensils will also be delivered. The people manage distributions themselves, a system which appears to be working well.

Fifty tonnes of biscuits supplied by the Norwegian government are already on their way to Jakarta, from where they will be flown to Timika; 35 more tonnes financed by the Danish government and organized through the Danish Red Cross will follow. Further donations and contributions are pending.

Logistics

For the time being the ICRC is running a small helicopter to transport its team, and a second, larger craft was put into operation on 12 December to carry supplies. Discussions are still in progress as how best to manage deliveries to all the villages concerned, since it is impossible to use road transport in the jungle (there are hardly even any footpaths) and the people are afraid to move around because of the military presence. For the time being assistance will concentrate on the western part of Irian Jaya, and be exten ded eastwards as necessary.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

The following division of tasks among the three components of the Movement was agreed upon after discussions with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the PMI. The ICRC is present in Indonesia, where it has had years of experience. The specific situation in Irian Jaya, where there is a military presence, raises concerns for the civilian population. The Federation is currently working in Papua New Guinea, and at a later date will be involved in the institutional development of the PMI.

Personnel

A British Red Cross nurse has been seconded to the operation and an ICRC expatriate remains on the spot to maintain contact with the authorities and organize logistics.