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Aceh: reconstruction will take years

06-09-2005 Press Briefing

Indonesia's Aceh province was devastated by last year's tsunami. Efforts to rebuild the lives of its people will be a long-term project for all those involved, says Walter Stocker who was until recently the ICRC's head of delegation in the country. In this interview he also talks about the ICRC's activities in light of the Aceh peace process.

 How did the ICRC react to the tsunami disaster?  

The first point is that the ICRC was able to react quickly, because we had been working in Aceh for several years in connection with the conflict there. We concentrated on helping the Indonesian Red Cross teams. They had consisted of 700 volunteers, but 300 of them had died in the disaster, leaving a massive gap. This was rapidly filled by hundreds of volunteers from other provinces and from abroad.

The ICRC’s local experience and our network of contacts meant we could facilitate the response of all components of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, especially in terms of security and access to the victims of the tsunami.

The ICRC also helped set up the system for coordinating action between the Movement’s components – the International Federation, the Indonesian Red Cross and the thirty or so National Societies from all over the world who came to help.

During the initial phases of the emergency operation, the ICRC was able to use its local stocks of food and essential supplies. We also set up a major logistics hub in Singapore, with the assistance of the Singapore Red Cross Society. Our immediate task was to distribute food to the survivors for a few weeks until the World Food Programme took over the job.

Another important aspect of our response was restoring family links and tracing missing persons, which we did in conjunction with the Indonesian Red Cross. We set up a special website listing people whose families had lost touch with them. People in detention were also able to re-establish contact with their families in regions affected by the tsunami.

 Eight months after the disaster, what are the ICRC’s more long-term plans?  

The ICRC has almost completely ceased the operational activities aimed at helping the tsunami victims we launched over eight months ago. We are still running a number of water and sanitation programmes, helping to ensure that people returning to their communities have access to drinking water and hygiene. The ICRC is concentrating on its usual conflict-related work and on promoting international humanitarian law.

Having said which, the ICRC does retain some “residual” responsibility with regard to the tsunami. The ICRC, the International Federation and the Indonesian Red Cross have all signed an agreement with the government agency responsible for reconstruction, which means the ICRC is still involved in the continuing Red Cross/Red Crescent response to the disaster. For the ICRC, this means both continuing our role in coordinating the efforts of the Movement’s partners and continuing to play our habitual role of helping a population affected by conflict.


 What are today’s main challenges with regard to helping the victims of the tsunami?  

The transition from the emergency phase to the reconstruction phase is a major challenge, and is proving more difficult than expected. We must remember that the Red Cross and Red Crescent have received large amounts of money from donors, and that it is not possible to spend all this money overnight. Most of the National Societies involved in reconstruction expect to be working in this area f or the next two or three years. That requires a major planning effort, quite apart from the effort involved in implementing the programmes themselves.

Our basic concern is as follows: how do you tell someone their house won’t be rebuilt until 2008 and that in the meantime they’ll have to live in a tent that the wind will have ripped to shreds long before then? Apart from which, that person will remain dependent on aid, because they have no means of earning a living.

This means that as well as running long-term reconstruction programmes, we have to look after those who are most vulnerable and who will continue to need help, especially those living in temporary accommodation centres because they have nowhere else to go. The Movement has decided that this is one of its areas of responsibility, because these people have to live in decent conditions while they’re waiting to benefit from reconstruction programmes.

 What are the implications of the peace process in Aceh for the ICRC’s work?  

One direct consequence is the release of people held in connection with the conflict. The ICRC has been visiting these people – for several years in certain cases – and our delegates continue to visit places of detention. Where people granted an amnesty are still being held, we discuss this with the authorities and monitor their conditions of detention.

We also follow developments in the situation and will be continuing our dialogue with the Indonesian authorities. I should point out that the ICRC visits places of detention in other Indonesian provinces and in connection with issues other than the Aceh conflict.

The ICRC would like to have a more marked presence in former conflict zones, so we can assess the needs of the civilian population, including people who have been released from detention. There are questions related to protection of these populations and to discrimination. To what extent are they going to be able to benefit from the considerable funds allocated to reconstruction and development?