Monday, March 30, 2009

Aceh Timur's Rohingya Refugees in the News

The following news clips are from an informational email news service called the Serambi Daily Summary, in which important articles from the country that are especially pertinent to Aceh are translated into English and distributed to interested organizations working in the area. The editors note that “unless marked otherwise, all summaries are extracted from the Serambi Indonesia which is our prime source. The following publications are also monitored: Harian Aceh, Rakyat Aceh, Metro Aceh, Waspada, Analisa, Pro Haba, Aceh Independen, Modus Aceh, Kontras and Tempo."

Monday 16 March 09
The Government are Requested to Involve UNHCR to Handle the Rohingya
Banda Aceh – The Indonesian Government is requested to invite UNHCR’s involvement in the handling the Rohingya boatpeople stranded in Aceh several months ago. “We hope that the government will involve UNHCR because the government of Sabang is unable to continuously assist them, especially their logistic needs,” said the Mayor of Sabang, Munawarliza Zainal in Banda Aceh, Tuesday (17/03). When Myanmar’s Prime Minister, General Thein Sein, visited Indonesia, Myanmar’s agreed to accept these boatpeople back to Myanmar only if they could prove that they are indeed Myanmarese. In this regard, the Government of Indonesia agreed to extend their stay as refugees in Indonesia until a final solution is found. Responding to this agreement, the Mayor of Sabang stated that if the Central Government instructed Pemko Sabang (the local government) to utilize the district budget, the Pemko will be able to so. “However, we have not gotten any instruction to use the district budget from the central government; therefore we presently can only assist humanitarianly,” Munawarliza added. According to Munawarliza, the 193 Rohingyas, now camped in Sabang, are being assisted by some NGOS and other parties, yet the logistic stock is very limited.

And an update in the 3/26 summary:

Again, Muslim Aid Assists the Rohingya Refugees
Banda Aceh – For the second time, Muslim Aid Indonesia have assisted the Rohingya refugees in their camp in Idi, Aceh Timur. This time, Muslim Aid distributed food and medicine and it will build three toilets at the camp site. Special Program Officer of Muslim Aid Indonesia, Abdul Hamid, in his press release to Serambi on Thursday, said that food and medicine packages were directly distributed to the refugees, who are now at the office of Camat of Idi Rayeuk, on Thursday (26/03). Meanwhile, the toilets are under construction and will be ready in three days.

My notes: At this time IOM and UNHCR are helping the Sabang camp but as of today (3/27) they are not involved with the Idi camp. Also: the latrines are nearly complete, thanks to the folks at Muslim Aid. They truly are wonderful!!!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Report from the NGO Coordination Meeting in Aceh Timur

Thank goodness I have a great staff in Aceh. Before I left we coordinated a meeting between all the NGO’s involved in assisting the Rohingya refugees, the local leaders (camat, bupati, vice bupati), and various governmental bodies. We had to do some fast talking to convince everyone that we weren’t interested in “taking over.” What we do really well is respond, and we get a little impatient waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to move. I’ve always felt that if there’s a vacuum and you can fill it, you jolly well go fill it, so we took up the slack regarding coordination and much of the early public information. This has been seen as muscling in, I guess, so my ever-so diplomatic staff worked with participants to smooth some feathers.
The meeting happened day before yesterday, and here’s part of their email report to me:

The meeting was well attended, local NGOs, gvt, TNI, police, and the local UNORC representative.
Each agency took turns to say its bit, and so we laid out our concerns. I think everyone was in agreement about why we were having the meeting and we all wanted the same outcome from the meeting, which isn't always the case. After a rocky start where they assumed we were going to take over, it all worked out well. We explained that we had no interest politically or in taking control. We only wanted to make sure that things were running smoothly enough on the ground so that outside NGO’s and other agencies would donate and feel comfortable helping. We explained that we were really there to help them use the correct reporting methods and to build capacity. They loved that idea and then it settled down to a good meeting.
It was interesting having so many different NGO’s in the room, and we were all sort of suspicious at first . . .I mean, everyone’s trying so hard and naturally there’s some defensiveness about what your group has done so far. It took a while to build some trust but at the end it was agreed that we all needed to work together, the camat acknowledged that accountability to donors was needed,
At first he felt that he was being accused of being dishonest. But when it was made clear that the reporting methods and record keeping were established to get more funding and donations, he cheerfully agreed, and the doctor from the hospital was happy to work with assistance. I think they’re actually all a bit relieved since it had been an extra burden on them.
We also worked on establishing a unified approach to refugee camp management, which was trickier, since it’s customary for the camat to be in charge of everything that goes on in his village. However,. He agreed to participate in a working group meeting on Tuesday, which will clarify roles and responsibilities of all parties. It will also establish some firm timelines and delegations of specific tasks and responsibilities The group was happy that we'd all met and had the chance to air concerns and suggestions for how to move forward. So D will begin teaching people about how to keep proper records on donations, inventory food in storage, etc. warehousing of food etc. She will be our regular representative at the meetings, especially during the time close to the election when foreigners shouldn’t really be travelling back and forth along the roads to Aceh Timur.

Regarding donations, there have been donations from a lot more people/organisations that we've been aware of. There is apparently enough rice for 2 months. FPRM buys fresh supplies on a daily basis (veg and fish) and other supplies when needed, like paraffin. FPRM estimates there is enough money for 5 more days’ worth of supplies.

Interview with a Refugee in the Camp
From another staff email that day (my responses are in blue):

I spoke to one of the refugees and he spoke broken English-- not good enough to translate but he knew some basic grammar and was able to tell her that they played volleyball, that there was one guy who was the volley champ, that the toilets were smelly and there wasn't always water to wash.
We are still having an awful problem locating a translator.

The toilets are full to choking and urgently need replacing with latrines with a bigger pit. I’m also extremely concerned about the lack of water for washing. It was 2pm when we were there and the water tank where they get mandi water was empty. So there isn't water to wash after they use the toilet, nor to wash hands

Get in touch with the head of Muslim Aid who we met and tell him we are in serious need. He also has food but is going to wait till after there is proper reporting in place before he brings it (a good idea).

Over lunch we talked about the toilets (that sounds awful I know!) and agreed that what we should do is to put in semi-permanent toilets at the tented camp immediately, because it could be several weeks before there are barracks, if there indeed are. Just my opinion but I don't think shallow pits will hold much more, they are almost full. We will ask the camat if semi-permanents can be installed (hopefully by Muslim Aid). We have to ask him now.
Pemda are providing Mandi water free of charge, 2 times a day but its clearly not enough. I suggested to FPRM that we pay them for more but they didn't think that would work. An alternative is to drill a borehole . . . more expensive, not always successful and not a lot of space in my opinion.

Forget the borehole-- it is too much and by the time we hit water they will have moved. The cost is really high. Talk to FPRM and again tell them they we need water and that we have the funds to pay so please let’s get in more water or else having better toilets will not make a difference since without water to clean themselves the same illnesses will prevail.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Letter to the UN Office of the Recovery Coordinator for Aceh and Nias

Dear M:

I am sorry that we did not chat about what was going on in Aceh Timur but I am leaving today for the States and thought you would catch me before I left. l will not be back for 2-3 weeks.

Let me first tell you that there is a coordination meeting with local NGO's and government agencies that are involved in the camp at this time. The meeting is at 10AM at Ruang Serba Guna, Idi Rayeak. We have been working with Assistant 1 and the local NGO FPRM in arranging this meeting. We do hope that you will attend. It will bring you up to date on what is happening and the players involved. I am sure an invitation has been given to UNORC in Aceh Timur. We hope to have a needs assessment ready for the meeting but it has been [a difficult process.]

There are 198 men in the camp at this time. We have been able to raise $20,000 for food for this month and another $20,000 for next month. So we feel that the food situation is under control. We also have NGO's that are donating more food. We also have a donation of latrines. This is quite important because the sanitation is really not very good at the camp and this situation could breed disease. We also have 3 months of medical care that is being donated along with para-medical personnel and hardware. This will start on the 1st or 2nd of April. We are bringing a psychologist, who is volunteering her time, with us to do mental health assessments for the refugees.

After talking with the Bupati and Assistant 1 this week we all feel that we need to move the camp. The district has land which they will donate but we are in desperate need of barracks or some type of housing. The tents that are being used now are over crowded and inadequate. We also need an interpreter to be in a better position to talk to the refugees about their needs. We are not trying to get information from them since we have no idea how to process refugees and are only filling in till IOM and UNHCR take over the camp.

We have made arrangements, which have been given government consent, to get the names and numbers of refugees to pass on to a group who work with the Rohingyas worldwide and are based in Thailand. They will inform family members that the refugee is alive and well but not divulge the location at this time.

Our office looks forward to speaking to you and hopefully to coordinate all our efforts together. We are working with quite a few NGO's and foreign governments and their agencies on getting more donations. We will keep you apprised if there is any new development.

Best Regards,

Hello from Aceh!

Welcome to the blog of Building Bridges to the Future Foundation. Actually, this is more of my personal blog, because I felt that in addition to our websites and our Facebook and Twitter pages, (which will be set up shortly by more tech-savvy minds than mine), there needed to be a less formal, more personal accounting of what is happening in Aceh, where I’ve worked (and much of the time lived) since right after the tsunami in 2005. I have to confess that all this internet-based communication is quite new to me, but I’ve always been able to write letters back home to my family, consultants, and people who I’ve asked to assist me with our work in Aceh, so we all decided that a blog would be a great way to keep everyone up to date. If you’re a relative or friend, you can rest assured that Grammy’s still kicking. If you’re someone interested in humanitarian relief efforts in Aceh but don’t know where to begin to look for info, this might be the place to start. If you’re a multinational corporation or large donor, you might grow to rather adore us and decide to fund one or more of our programs.

I have to say that much of what I’ll be writing here (as opposed to what’s on our web page, newsletters, etc) is purely SUBJECTIVE, though I’m going to try and be as diplomatic as I can be here, even if I may be tearing my hair out in frustration from time to time.

This has all been a marvelous journey for me. I came to humanitarian relief via the scenic route, you might say. I’d been an investment banker all of my adult life, and had been stationed in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia ) since 1991. Immediately after the 2004 Tsunami hit Aceh, leaving nearly 80% of the province devastated, I traveled there with a friend who was involved in building houses in villages on the east coast that had been partly destroyed. I figured, since I’m living in this country I want to see for myself the extent of the disaster that has affected it. I wanted to see the west coast, which had been the most heavily damaged, so we travelled to the village of Rumpet, in the sub-district of Lamno , which because of its topography had been hit on three sides. What I found there absolutely broke my heart. There was nothing. People were wandering AROUND through rubble, like zombies. And yet, survivors had this spirit in them still, this desire to move forward . . .and to help others, which was more moving to me than anything else. It’s this deep sense of concern for others that I witnessed time and again over the past 4 years, most recently in the village of Idi, in eastern Aceh where 198 Rohingyan refugees landed on the coast, fleeing conditions in Myanmar . This incident is one of the reasons I feel I need to keep a public daily journal of what is going on in Aceh. The people in this area are some of the poorest in the country, and while for weeks no large aid organization was forthcoming with any type of assistance for the refugees, who were starving and injured, the Achenese in this village opened their hearts and homes, giving what little they had to complete strangers, just because they needed it. Every day since then the community delivers fresh fish to the camp so the refugees have fish.

One of the first things I did back in 2005 in Rumpet was ask local leaders what people needed. Housing, they said. People needed housing. There had only been 300 houses built in that area—by the Turkish government—since the tsunami had hit. So with my own funds I hired two local men, who would become the first two members of my “team,” and together until December of 2005 we built enough houses so that the people of Rumpet were among the first in Aceh to be back in their homes. Through 2007 we finished projects that larger NGO’s left due to safety and other concerns, reclaimed crop fields, provided livestock and building materials to a number of community members, and gradually our little group grew and became a cohesive unit and positive force in the area of sustainable livelihoods in Aceh.

I’ve gotten to know some wonderful people in the development field here. When I was just a “rookie,” I received lots of information, and some good advice, which was to become a registered 501 c 3 organization so that I could apply to various governments and assistance bodes for funding instead of just, well, using my own.

So Building Bridges to the Future Foundation was born, based in New York, but with most of the activity taking place in the tough parts of Aceh (which we got a reputation for being able to serve when no one else would).

I became President of the Foundation, got an house/office in Banda, the capital city, and set up an office there. My little group of talented but not-too-organized staff became even more talented, and very organized, and we formed an Indonesian registered NGO, called Yayasan Jimbatan Masa Depan (JMD), to be the counterpart to Building Bridges to the Future.

Our progress and programs are laid out in lots of loving and professional detail on the websites ( and

But for the purposes of this blog, I want to start in the present. And the present is a mad whirl of activity, let me tell you. We’re up in Aceh Timur (east Aceh) where there is a double humanitarian crisis. While JMD has managed to wrestle some small amounts of aid from the world community (with help from many stalwart and small NGO’s on the ground there), the situation is pretty dire. After all, as anyone working with refugees knows, eventually they have to have somewhere to go—a permanent home, a livelihood, a community. At the same time, the Achenese themselves in this area are on the brink of starvation. As a matter of fact, we were developing programming for this area when the Rohingya landed on the beach in battered boats, towed ashore by Acehnese fishermen.

So this blog will hopefully be a daily or every other day update of what I’m doing, what my team is doing, what our good friends in Aceh are doing . . . and I’ll try to get a handle on this blogging thing and give you links and reading and maps and photos so that you know this place and care for it as much as I do. I’m in Aceh now but I’m on an extended visa and they’ll be booting me out on Sunday, but I’ll be back there in three weeks.

But lots can happen even from 6,000 miles away, and now that this is set up, I hope I will be adding to it regularly.