LHOKNGA, Indonesia -- Ali, a scruffy Acehnese truck driver turned tsunami refugee, said he wasn't sure who provided him with a sack of rice, bottled water, a blanket and a few other meager provisions, just that they were foreigners.
Brushing aside flies, he knelt in a corner of his tent and pointed to the sky when asked where the supplies had come from. One item was a silver packet labeled "Shortbread" in English. Another larger brown package was stamped "Red Beans and Rice." They appeared to be U.S. military food rations.
Children scramble for aid delivered by the Australian army in Lamno, Aceh. The government continues to debate foreign presence in the province.
(Kimimasa Mayama -- Reuters)
"The foreigners are the only ones who gave us anything. We haven't gotten anything from the Indonesian government," said Ali, 43, a sad-eyed man with curly hair and a scraggly beard. "If the foreign soldiers leave Aceh, the Acehnese people will starve to death."
A heated debate over how long U.S. and other foreign troops should be allowed to remain in Indonesia has been dominated by political and military leaders based in Jakarta, the capital.
The country's welfare minister, for example, told reporters Sunday that it was "only logical" that foreign forces begin pulling out. "The emergency phase is almost behind us, so the military will no longer give their contribution," said Alwi Shihab, referring to U.S., Singaporean and other foreign troops.
But in more than two dozen interviews in Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province, residents unanimously said that foreign forces should remain for at least several years. Acehnese, from homeless rice farmers to professors and local officials, said the troops should help with reconstruction and serve as a check on Indonesian security forces, widely feared in the province because of their heavy-handed campaign against separatist rebels, known as the Free Aceh Movement. The rebels have been fighting for autonomy for decades.
The desire of many Acehnese that the foreign forces stay reflects frustration with domestic relief efforts but also an alienation from Indonesia born of 29 years of civil war.
The tsunami that crashed into 11 Indian Ocean countries on Dec. 26, killing an estimated 150,000 people, triggered an unprecedented international relief campaign. At least 12 countries, including the United States, provided military support operations, and about 100 U.N. agencies and private humanitarian groups rushed to the stricken area. But many Indonesian officials, party activists and senior military officers have demanded that U.S. and other foreign troops depart within weeks.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla, airing the nationalist sentiments of many Indonesians, called on the foreigners to leave by March 26. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, however, has softened the deadline, saying that some foreign military expertise and equipment might be needed beyond that date.
Adm. Thomas Fargo, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said recently that military forces involved in providing relief to countries struck by the tsunami were already beginning to withdraw and could be gone entirely by late March. The U.S. military has deployed about 8,000 troops in and around Indonesia, mostly on ships off the coast.
Acehnese have been cautious in public about the foreign presence. The government's battle with the Free Aceh Movement has left the local population cowed, fearing interrogation, detention or even summary execution by one side or the other for voicing offending views.
As Ali and his wife shared their impatience over Indonesian relief efforts, they kept watch through the opening of the tent, lowering their voices whenever Indonesian army trucks, crowded with soldiers in green camouflage uniforms cradling automatic rifles, rumbled past. U.S. Navy Sea Hawk helicopters roared overhead every few minutes, heading down the west coast to deliver aid.
"If it's possible, the foreign troops should stay here 50 years," Ali continued, almost pleading. He and other refugees said they feared being identified by the army and requested that they not be photographed or further identified. "If the international troops don't stay here for a long time, there will be corruption, and none of the assistance will get into our hands."
Sitting on a blue tarp in a plaid sarong and swatting flies with his folded yellow hat, Ali complained that Indonesian soldiers were hoarding foreign assistance and had confiscated one of the tents that a U.S. helicopter had delivered to the relief camp he shares with about 35 others. Another refugee, Syaiful, 19, a high school student with floppy bangs, poked his head into the tent and seconded Ali's complaint, alleging that Indonesian soldiers had yanked a sack of rice out of his hands.
Acehnese in interviews repeatedly accused Indonesian soldiers of stealing foreign aid but said they feared reprisals if they reported the practice to authorities.
Ali said friends had been tortured by soldiers, and that he had been beaten at a police checkpoint by soldiers demanding a bribe.
"We've been praying to God that the government will withdraw the military from our place," he said with a scowl, thick furrows gathering above his eyes. "Under the supervision of foreign troops, we'll be free to move. Our farmers will be able to go into the fields and plant rice, and our fishermen will be able to fish. But if the Indonesian military is in charge, they stop us and point their guns at us."
Human rights groups have accused Indonesian security forces in recent years of committing abuses against Acehnese civilians in the course of fighting the insurgency. The Indonesian government has dismissed these charges, saying they target only the rebels.
The Indonesian government has also rejected allegations that soldiers are stealing assistance. Officials said tens of thousands of soldiers have been involved in clearing streets of corpses and delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees in Aceh. If relief aid did not arrive sooner, officials have said, it was because of a shortage of military equipment, in particular transport planes.
Isma, 23, a rail-thin woman dressed in a blue sweat suit, disagreed. "The international soldiers and aid workers help us sincerely. The Indonesian soldiers do not," she said.
"I hope the international soldiers stay here for a long time," Isma said as she hung laundry on a clothesline outside an abandoned house near her camp. "They can help the Acehnese people wake up from this nightmare. They can help develop Aceh and prevent war here so we can live in peace."
Hussein, 20, a bare-chested man in black trousers who had been drying cloves on a sheet in front of the house, walked over to join the conversation. He said he preferred the presence of foreign troops to government intervention.
"If the foreign groups and soldiers had not come, Aceh would still be dead," said the jobless laborer. "The government set the deadline for international soldiers to leave Aceh because they don't want the world to know the truth of what is happening."
Before the tsunami struck, Indonesia had restricted the access of foreign humanitarian workers and journalists to the province on grounds that they could be targeted by the rebels. Human rights groups and some foreign diplomats said the measures were meant to cover up abuses by the security forces.
Hussein said the government's greatest fear was that the world would learn that most Acehnese want to be independent. He also said he hoped the foreign presence would push peace negotiations between the government and the rebels.
But he said disaster relief was the immediate concern. "We can't allow the international soldiers to leave and let us starve," he said.
Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.