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Humbled by Tragedy, Heartened by Response

By Nora Boustany
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page A16

On Christmas day, the Indonesian ambassador, Soemadi D.M. Brotodiningrat, celebrated with 200 Indonesian Christians. Then he headed to the residence of Singapore's ambassador, arriving for dinner a little late.

About the same time, a powerful tsunami was ravaging parts of his country, swallowing whole villages and sweeping thousands of people into the belly of the sea. It was nearly 8 p.m. in Washington, already Sunday morning off the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, near the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the giant waves.

Ambassador Soemadi D.M Brotodiningrat and his wife, Suharti, escorted President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to a memorial at Indonesia's Embassy on Monday. (Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

"I always thought that Noah's Ark was a story for children," he said in an interview Wednesday. "Now I am going to go back and reread it."

The career diplomat, who has also served in Tokyo, New York, Brussels and Geneva, thought he had seen it all. "This is different from wars and terrorism, which are the acts of men. After 40 years in the foreign service, I am reminded there is a force much larger and more powerful than me and everybody else," said Brotodiningrat, 63. "At least for me, it is humbling."

For the first few days after the tsunami, callers deluged the embassy with questions and concerns. The ambassador was awake virtually nonstop as he tried to keep abreast of the swelling death toll, which as of Thursday had passed 94,000 in his country. Finally, he said, he managed to fall asleep, "more out of exhaustion than any calm state of mind."

But the extent of the devastation had not yet hit home.

Now, "we are really overwhelmed," he said. "We are facing difficulty in penetrating the terrain for relief work. The western shore of Aceh, which is rather isolated, even under normal circumstances, is less developed than the eastern coast."

Global pledges for assisting the relief effort total about $4 billion, with the United States offering $350 million.

Brotodiningrat was grateful that he had the opportunity to express gratitude on behalf of his country to three successive U.S. presidents -- President Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. All three came to his chancellery at 2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW on Monday to sign books of condolences. Three books lay open in front of cascading arrangements of white lilies and tulips, placed on a large wood table in the high-ceilinged foyer.

"We were most heartened by the gesture of small children who gave away their favorite toys," Brotodiningrat said. Frilly dolls, Matchbox cars and Barneys have been placed outside among wilting bouquets and candles, now extinguished by the rain.

The ambassador's staff was not untouched by the tragedy. A young intern, here for a three-month stint, was finally able to reach his mother by telephone, but learned that 15 members of his family, including two uncles and their families, were missing.

The ambassador said he was coordinating offers of assistance and logistics with Marc Grossman, the State Department's undersecretary for political affairs. U.S. helicopters have delivered food and water to remote villages in Aceh province, the hardest-hit part of Sumatra. "Usually we have been able to cope by ourselves," he said. "Not this time."

The U.S.-Indonesia Society, which helps raise awareness here about Indonesia, is trying to organize nongovernmental groups so that they can share updates on progress in the relief effort, he added. The U.S. Agency for International Development has already delivered small generators and water purification systems.

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was sworn in last year as the country's first directly elected president, was on the verge of preparing a five-year plan for Indonesia, the ambassador said. Yudhoyono had promised to take dramatic steps to curb corruption and unemployment, but "now there is bound to be an adjustment of policies and priorities," the ambassador said.

"The main challenge now will be dealing with the devastation and reconstruction; fueling investment to revamp the infrastructure may have to wait."

Brotodiningrat, a Muslim, said he believed God was compassionate and merciful, even if the unleashing of the tsunami was a sign of divine anger and wrath, as a clergyman has suggested. The ambassador said the disaster could bring the people of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, closer to their faith.

He said the next phase represented "both an opportunity and a challenge" for the new government.

"It now finds itself at a crossroads. If it performs well in dealing with this disaster . . . it will help resolve and overcome a lot of tension that existed" in the country, he said. "If the government does not perform well, there may be a backlash."

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