Man of war to man of peace

TNI general, more used to guns, now leads Aceh relief effort.

FROM fighting an insurgency in Aceh to bringing relief to a beleaguered people.

Major-General Bambang Darmono has been directing military operations against separatist rebels for the past year.

Now, he finds himself in the midst of a huge humanitarian operation to restore normalcy to thousands of lives disrupted by the tsunami disaster.

The two-star army general was in Jakarta with his wife and children for Christmas when Indonesian armed forces (TNI) commander Endriartono Sutarto called, asking him to return to his post immediately.

He was entrusted with the task of heading aid efforts in the stricken province.

In an interview with The Straits Times yesterday, he declared: ‘My soldiers have done a good job.’

The interview was granted well past midnight at the end of an 18-hour day while Maj-Gen Bambang was in a huddle with a general and two colonels in the nerve centre of the relief operations – the airport’s military hangar.

With instant noodles and rambutans for sustenance, they went through their plans for the next day, surrounded by aerial shots of Aceh before and after the tsunamis.

A projector screen was positioned prominently on the right of the white-walled command post, which is no larger than 10m by 10m.

The screen showed a map of Aceh, and the 52-year-old stocky general pointed out locations on it with a red laser as he talked animatedly about the way the TNI has led disaster relief efforts for the past three weeks.

Next, he reached for his laptop. A few taps and an organisational chart flickered onto the screen.

Right at the top is the disaster coordinating council (Bakornas) headed by Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla.

Maj-Gen Bambang reports directly to Bakornas. He has some 4,500 soldiers under his command for aid operations in some 10 areas in Aceh.

All the foreign military teams – including those from Singapore, Australia and the United States – and local and international aid agencies also report to him.

‘I am the man in charge in Aceh,’ he declared. ‘I am here to make sure things get done on the ground.’

The clearing of debris and the rebuilding work relies heavily on the men and an array of machines – ships, ferries, helicopters and excavators – made available by the foreign forces.

Suddenly, Maj-Gen Bambang’s mobile phone beeps. It is an SMS from an Acehnese woman who suffered injuries in the disaster. She is upset that a local clinic is asking her to pay for treatment.

He immediately barks an order to his one-star general: ‘Make sure this gets out to the press. When officials see it in the paper, they won’t dare do this sort of thing. We should be helping the victims, not making things difficult for them.’

The challenges he faces are daunting. Both the west and east coasts of Aceh have been devastated by the tsunami.
Swathes of land have been flattened and coastlines have disappeared.

One Indonesian military officer describes the tsunami-hit Aceh as being ‘another Hiroshima without the bomb’.

The signs of the devastating damage are stark as one drives from Lhokseumawe in North Aceh to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. It takes six hours to cover the 200km distance.

Debris of rotting wood, tangled metal and smashed cars litter the muddied coasts.

The roads are pock-marked with small moon-like craters, a result of the flooding that followed the killer tidal waves.

In Banda Aceh, the stench of the dead is pronounced in rubble yet to be cleared.

Of serious concern are the tent colonies popping up throughout the province. The makeshift camps, built with little regard to water supply or latrines, are often incubation sites for diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea.

But over the past few weeks, Maj-Gen Bambang and his men have made large strides in rescue and relief efforts, and are now ready to move to the rehabilitation phase.

‘We started at ground zero with nothing, not even an idea or plan to get things moving. Yes, we got off to a slow start in the first 10 days but then picked up quickly. Now we have a system in place. Things are moving much more smoothly.’

The hour-long interview ended at 2am. The general could not hide a yawn.

It is obvious that there are many long days and nights in store for him in the months to come.

SMOOTH SYSTEM

‘We started at ground zero with nothing, not even an idea or plan to get things moving. Yes, we got off to a slow start in the first 10 days but then picked up quickly. Now we have a system in place. Things are moving much more smoothly.’
– MAJOR-GENERAL BAMBANG DARMONO (left), on the work of Indonesian troops in Aceh

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