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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

'Yes' to buffaloes, 'no' to sunglasses

Jan 26, 2005 - Jakarta Post
'Yes' to buffaloes, 'no' to sunglasses
Singapore mindful of local culture when giving aid to tsunami survivors in Meulaboh

By Tertiani Zb Simanjuntak

IT CAME as no surprise when the trucks full of soldiers with familiar faces passing along the main streets of Meulaboh on the west coast of Aceh were greeted by waving children and adults yelling 'Singaporeans, Singaporean soldiers have arrived'.

As the first of the foreign troops to enter Meulaboh, almost 80 per cent of which was devastated by the Dec 26 disaster, the Singaporean defence force has paved the way for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the small town.

Life has gradually been returning in the harbour town. While few fishermen are brave enough to set out to sea, the town has been almost completely cleared of rubble and flotsam, while the market and stores have reopened.

'The town is getting busier day by day - traffic jams everywhere. It's a good sign,' Colonel Tan Chuan Jin, who commands the entire relief operation being mounted from three Singaporean warships - the RSS Endurance, the RSS Persistence and the RSS Endeavour - laying at anchor off Meulaboh, told the Jakarta Post.

The neighbouring country immediately responded to the disaster by sending medical supplies and other forms of assistance to Aceh's capital city, Banda Aceh, and Medan in North Sumatra. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) later decided to focus relief efforts on Meulaboh, where access by road had been cut by the tsunami.

The unarmed troops have been busy restoring the shore and roads and cleaning up the city. They have also constructed two landing pads for helicopters.

Following the reopening of the road from Medan and the construction of the helipads, more relief workers and aid supplies have been arriving in Meulaboh.

The SAF initiated a coordination system with the Indonesian authorities in Meulaboh, ensuring that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) brought in only what the displaced people and locals actually needed.

From the RSS Endurance, Col Tan commands 'Singapore's biggest military operation ever', organising the work of up to 800 personnel, including medical teams and members of the Singapore Red Cross and NGOs.

He also has at his disposal six Chinooks and two Super Puma helicopters, dozens of bulldozers, diggers, excavators, forklifts, tractors, trucks and other vehicles.

Despite the humid and sunny weather of the coastal area, none of the soldiers wears sunglasses, especially among locals, as they find it 'rude and un-Asian'. The fatigue endured by the soldiers, who are mostly conscripts and have to travel from the vessel to shore every day at 7am and sail back at 5pm before completing their duties on board by 10.30pm, was quickly dispelled by the well wishes and prayers sent by Singaporean elementary school students.

Scaling down their operation in Meulaboh, which started on New Year's Eve, the soldiers sailed off on Jan 21 after the Muslim troops among the contingent celebrated the big day (Hari Raya Haji) with locals. The SAF contributed 20 buffaloes to be slaughtered for the festivities at several camps.

'We have set up a system here which can be continued by other organisations that have better capabilities than we have and will continue to deliver humanitarian assistance from Singapore and various NGOs and international organisations,' Col Tan remarked.

The Singaporean troops have also established a temporary command centre that can be used by whoever takes their place 'as a symbol of the start of reconstruction in Meulaboh'.

'Although we were the first to arrive, it doesn't mean we're the last to stay. I hope it means the relationship between the two countries is getting stronger,' Col Tan said.

This article appeared in the Jakarta Post on Jan 20.

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