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In Aceh Province, Indonesia

'Very, Very Bad of Course. . . . Cholera Is Going to Be a Problem'

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A12

MEDAN, Indonesia, Dec. 27 -- Wiping his brow after returning from a tour of ravaged Aceh province on Monday, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said he was worried that the devastation was even worse than has been reported.

Images of death have been broadcast across Indonesia following the tsunami that devastated the province. Dozens of corpses, some bloated, were laid out on the street in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, many covered with orange sheets. In one particularly grim television image, about 10 dead children could be seen lying in a row on the ground, covered only by plaid sarongs.

The large downtown park surrounding the central mosque in the city of Banda Aceh is filled with the remains of damaged houses and vehicles. The inside of the mosque looked like a sprawling garbage dump. Many people found shelter under the mosque's black onion domes. (Beawiharta -- Reuters)

"It's very, very bad of course," Kalla said, speaking in a soft, frank tone after a tour of the hardest-hit areas.

Kalla said that given everything he had seen, reports of fewer than 5,000 deaths could be far too low. There were portions of western Aceh, where 1 million people live, that had not yet been contacted.

"Within a few days, we fear there are going to be outbreaks of disease," he said in an interview. "Cholera is going to be a problem. This is going to be the most important thing in a few days."

"We are in need of lots of material and lots of equipment," he said, wiping his face with a white handkerchief repeatedly. "Everything is needed."

Kalla led a tour of 25 officials around Aceh, including members of the Indonesian Red Cross and members of parliament. His aerial survey indicated "severe damage" in many areas.

The streets of both Banda Aceh and the industrial city of Lhokseumawe, located in northern Aceh, were cluttered Monday with tree branches, broken wood planks, scraps of metal, plastic chairs and abandoned pushcarts, according to witnesses. In some places, water continued to flow in the streets, while elsewhere the sea had entirely receded, leaving pavement caked with mud.

In Banda Aceh, the large downtown park surrounding the city's central mosque was filled with debris, including the remains of damaged houses and motorcycles, like a sprawling garbage dump. Many people found shelter under the mosque's famous black onion domes, and others sought refuge in smaller mosques and schools elsewhere in the province.

Kalla said that, after talking with officials and observing the devastation, he feared that 5,000 to 10,000 people might have died in Banda Aceh. He said 10,000 more could have been killed elsewhere in the province.

That estimate would be about four times higher than the death toll previously offered by Indonesian officials. The Indonesian Health Ministry has not increased the official estimate of those killed, reporting at least 4,800 deaths.

Precise information has been unavailable because telephone and radio communications were knocked out across Aceh. The territory, at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, supplies about 30 percent of Indonesia's oil and has been torn for years by conflict between separatist rebels and government forces.

The rebel group, the Free Aceh Movement, announced it would honor a cease-fire so that relief agencies could safely deliver supplies to the province. "We will not be on the offensive, but we will be on the defensive," Baktiar Abdullah, a guerrilla spokesman, told the Associated Press.

Kalla said about 100,000 residents of Aceh had been displaced and required emergency shelter.

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