BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 5 -- Indonesians encountered on the devastated streets of Banda Aceh have developed a new greeting since foreigners began flooding in to help them recover from the tsunami that surged into northern Sumatra 11 days ago.
"From where?" they ask, immediately following with, "Thank you for coming."
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Aceh province, where entry by foreigners had been severely restricted for years because of a separatist struggle, has suddenly become the destination for nearly every major U.N. branch, government aid agency, nongovernmental organization and news organization in the world.
The disaster has also drawn military aircraft and service members from a number of countries. U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules transport planes are landing here, as well as Navy SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters flying in from an aircraft carrier group just offshore.
Even Mohammed Yasmin, 38, a member of Laskar Mujaheddin, a radical Islamic group, said he did not want to complain about U.S. Navy and Marine personnel walking around the airport grounds and flying helicopters around the province from dawn until dusk. The best approach to the present crisis, he said, is to separate rescue work from religion or politics.
As the buildup of relief assistance intensifies, four-wheel-drive vehicles for rent have become scarce. Houses have been taken over by aid workers, who swiftly set up satellite dishes in the yard, crank up generators and post signs on the fence to identify their organizations. The demand for English-speaking Acehnese to act as interpreters has risen dizzily over the past week.
The onrush of disaster relief has not been without friction. Officials of some aid agencies have criticized others for slow reaction times.
Many foreign officials also have faulted the Indonesian military for retaining command of relief operations. Air traffic control has been a frequent target of criticism by U.S. military and civilian relief officials, who say they could speed the flow of aid if Indonesian military officers and air traffic control specialists would accept help in managing relief flights over Aceh.
But the residents of Aceh, by and large, have responded to arriving foreigners with open arms, a touch of surprise and frequent expressions of gratitude that so many are showing up to pitch in.
For some, the delight has sprung from an opportunity to make money, renting out a house, for example, or brokering fuel purchases for aid coordinators who pay in $100 bills. But for others, the satisfaction has come simply from seeing their backward and conflict-ridden province receive so much attention from so many parts of the world.
"Spain, Taiwan, Australia, Russia, many countries," said Dadang Irawanto, a government official assigned to help coordinate the outpouring. "No problem," he said, running his finger down a list of aid delegations that have checked in with provincial authorities. "It's good. And also the United Nations. Just over there."
Irma Rashad, 56, a grandmother who waited at the airport with her two daughters and two grandsons for a flight out of the stricken area, said residents of Aceh are delighted to see the foreigners -- even foreign military personnel -- because for so long, the only sign of outside interest in their province was the presence of Indonesian army troops dispatched by the government in Jakarta to combat separatist rebels.
"It's great," she said. "I am happy to see them, because they are helping us."
Nepi Andriani, 14, a high school student, said she had never seen so many foreigners at once and was happy to have them. "They can help the Acehnese people," she said.