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Dirt Road Is Slippery Lifeline for Acehnese

6 January 2005

On a slippery strip of mud, a dozen pickup trucks descended the mountains toward the west coast of Sumatra, the area hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the region.

Some members of the convoy were bringing food and water to relatives who had lost virtually everything. Others were returning home, bracing themselves for horrors on the stretch of the Indian Ocean coast where tens of thousands of people are believed to have died.

Headed in the opposite direction, trucks crammed with families escaping the catastrophe struggled to make the ascent, their wheels spinning in the brown ooze as men pushed the vehicles from behind. In the center of the road, a three-foot ditch snared the wheels of one car after another, as engines roared in futility.

Then, as if things could get any worse, it began to rain.

This steep, winding road through jungle-covered mountains in the Indonesian province of Aceh amounts to the greatest potential lifeline to communities suffering from a natural disaster that will surely be remembered for generations. It is also a primary bottleneck in the Indonesian relief effort. The road is barely passable in places, a river of muck impervious to most vehicles. It is also the only available overland route to the devastated towns and villages on the west coast of Sumatra, where thousands still wait for outside aid.

A drive on Wednesday and Thursday from the east coast of Sumatra toward the town of Meulaboh on the west coast -- the place of greatest concern -- underscored the extent to which the area has been cut off, complicating efforts to ferry in food, water and medical help. About 100 miles separate the mountain town of Takengon from Meulaboh, a trip that took some vehicles as long as two days. It was treacherous going, with delays running two or three hours in places where the road was washed out as wayward vehicles were yanked, pushed or prodded out of the way.

A relatively modern highway once connected the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, to Meulaboh. But the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami destroyed bridges and stripped away pavement, leaving this little-used, largely dirt road as the only way in.

In recent days, international aid groups have expressed frustration about their inability to reach the west coast. The UN World Food Program, which has delivered more than 400,000 tons of food to Banda Aceh, had yet to survey the overland route to Meulaboh and was not sure if the town could be reached by truck.

"The question on everybody's mind is what about the west coast," Michael Elmquist, coordinator of the UN relief effort in Indonesia, said during a news conference this week. "Very few of us have had a chance to see the west coast."

Since last week, US Navy and Singaporean military helicopters have been airlifting supplies of food and water. Senior relief officials say such operations are crucial to preventing hunger and dehydration in the immediate term. But the aid has been far from enough, according to refugees leaving Meulaboh.

"I never received anything," said Rufni Abdullah. Her 14-month-old son was tied to her waist in a batik sarong, as she made her way toward her father's house more than 60 miles away. "There's no place to stay and no more food to eat."

Aid workers consider the first three months of the relief mission as critical, the period in which massive infusions of food, water and medicine are needed to stave off disease. Helicopters cannot be relied upon for everything because of limitations in the amount of weight they can carry.

"Ideally, one would like a lot more," said Peter Holdsworth, an Africa-based rapid-response coordinator for ECHO, Europe's emergency aid delivery arm, now shifted to Indonesia. "You need to get other systems in place," he said, adding that road and bridge repair must be pursued aggressively.

All of which explains how the condition of this primitive road through mostly empty country in the center of Sumatra has suddenly become a matter of life and death.

As traffic moved Thursday, measuring progress in yards, men ran alongside vehicles clearly unsuited to the terrain -- panel vans, front-wheel-drive pickups -- throwing rocks in their path to apply brakes as the tires skittered down the slick surface.

A family of 15 huddled on a soggy mattress in the back of a pickup as two men stood on the rear gates and hopped up and down in a fruitless attempt to keep the tires from the clutches of the mud. Once, twice, three times: The vehicle ran uphill only to slide back down.

A Mitsubishi truck sat on its side, its windshield smashed, abandoned in the center of the road. A van being pushed through the mud by shouting men smashed into the side of another van headed in the opposite direction. Both vehicles carried on without a cross word spoken.

Despite the severe challenges of the journey, those on the road said they had little choice.

"We haven't eaten since yesterday afternoon," said Mahidin Jakob, 25, his wife sitting next to him on the bench seat of their truck nursing a 2-month-old baby. "The aid trucks come infrequently, and there aren't enough helicopters." He left Meulaboh on Wednesday morning, headed to stay with relatives in Takengon. By midday Thursday, he was perhaps halfway there, pinned behind five other vehicles as he waited for the gridlock to clear.

"This road is terrible," complained Mohammed Isar, 45, as he drove his daughter back to Meulaboh from her university in Banda Aceh. "The government has neglected us. Thousands of people are waiting for aid and they have nothing."

No foreign aid trucks were to be seen, though several yellow Indonesian trucks carrying food and water made their way in. An empty truck operated by an Indonesian political party, Justice, was headed back out after dropping supplies in Meulaboh. It took three days to get in from the city of Medan. It would take about the same to get back.

Peter S Goodman

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