From the frontline of Banda Aceh

Paul Heussenstamm

Sorry this is so long, but going to Banda Aceh was important for many

of us interested in helping.

Thank you to all of you who helped contribute generously to our

trip. Everything went extremely well, considering, and together we

made a significant difference in people’s lives. We will also be

sending more water purifiers, so let us know if you want to help. The

following is my experiences and insights of this difficult journey to

Banda Aceh.

Amana and I were planning a trip to Bali, Indonesia and of course

with the nature of events surrounding the tsunami our plans were

altered forever. Since Amana speaks Indonesian, we decided to send a

call out to all of our friends and make a personal contribution to

the people of Indonesia. Almost magically, about $10,000 was

immediately contributed. We collected a large suitcase full of

medical supplies (lots of antibiotics) and purchased eight of the

finest Swiss-made Katadyn water purifiers on the market. Within days

we were off to Bali where there was little time for rest.

After a quick survey of the local Poskos (places collecting

contributions) and speaking with several people coordinating efforts,

we went to Geruda Airlines travel agents, the airline of Indonesia.

We made several requests about our soon-to-be mission and they simply

picked up the phone and called Jakarta. We were then told that the

airport just opened this day and there was only one flight per day.

We could leave from Jakarta early the next morning and the rest of

the flights were already fully booked. So we bought a tent, food and

flashlights as there wasn’t any other places to stay.

After crossing Java and spending a brief night in airport hotel,

we were up a 4 a.m. and on our way across Sumatra, one of the larger

islands in Indonesia. We briefly stopped in Medan, where all the

foreign supplies were coming in, and then took-off toward the most

northern tip to Banda Aceh. The airlines didn’t charge extra although

we were way overloaded, and “doors” started opening for us almost as

if there was a force guiding and protecting us. On the plane that

morning were troops of social workers from all over the world, such

as the UN, Unesco, Unicef, Doctors without Walls, Oxfam, U.S. Aid,

Merlin (medical emergency relief) and many others.

An Indonesian man sitting next to us on the flight was on his way

to take over the air traffic control position as the current one had

lost his whole family.

The airport was overwhelmed and 10 flights a day had become 100

per day bringing in supplies from the world.

On the flight, we met Dr. Cary Rasof ( and after

hearing about his work we decided to deliver our goods directly to

doctors and nurses of Merlin’s relief efforts. It was obvious to us

that they had spent time helping people all over the world.

Flying into Banda Aceh was nerve-racking in anticipation of what

we might see. We noticed hundreds of colorful tents around the

airport and you could easily tell a major relief effort was in

effect. A U.S. Marine helicopter flew over our heads as we were

walking on the tarmac and it felt really good to be an American at

that moment.

In the airport, there were many missing person signs similar to

Sept. 11, and we began to feel the anguish of the people. Being one

of the first to arrive, we were faced with the difficult task of

moving around without the aid of any organization. Luckily we spoke

Indonesian, and therefore many serendipitous things happened and we

were able move through the city without any problems.

After hiring a taxi for the day at $30 (taxi drivers in the next

few weeks were going to be rich), we left the airport and delivered

our water purifiers and medicines to Merlin.

Afterward, we began our shocking tour of the area around Banda

Aceh. First we visited several Poskos that were receiving aid and

housing the 100,000 homeless. The people were wonderfully friendly

and couldn’t believe we had come all this way to help them (praises a

social worker must get all the time). We visited a tennis court in

the back of a wealthy person’s home that was now a camp for so many,

and they lovingly invited us to stay with them.

We soon purchased the necessary face masks and traveled directly

into the city. This part of my sharing, I have no words for. What I

saw was indescribable. There was almost nothing left of an entire

city, and the smell of death and the destruction we witnessed was

beyond overwhelming. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t believe

what I was seeing. It felt surreal, way worse than any disaster movie


There was a strong military presence as all the streets were being

patrolled 24 hours a day. Many of the foreign workers had come from

Afghanistan and later Iraq, so they were used to this. There were

relief trucks everywhere with bright signs of who they represented,

such as the UN. On one beach, everything was completely gone except

for a large white mosque that was mercifully left standing as if to

say our faith is stronger than nature.

We met many dedicated people such as Danish television reporter

Mette Fugl who had taken a 24-hour bus ride through the jungle to get

here before the airport had opened. She said: “I have been all over

the world, including Iraq, and this is far worse.... I have never

seen anything like it. I still can’t believe it.” (

We moved through the entire city and decided to pass walking on

the beach as bodies were still floating up regularly. We heard a few

miracle stories on the hopeful side, such as they just found a small

boy that climbed a coconut tree to escape the water and he was still

alive after 10 days stuck up in the top of the tree. Another is a

woman and her child were being pulled out to sea when a large snake,

the size of a palm tree, was swimming for the shore. She grabbed on

for her life and the snake saved them both. Another man was found

alive under rubble here after 10 days.

Another version of what happened here is that after the terrible

quake that leveled many buildings, they had a typhoon and major wind

and rain. This was followed by the two great waves that were

reportedly as high as 27 feet. They reportedly went as far as six

miles inland and swept just about everything out to sea.

Late in the afternoon back at the airport, we looked for a place

to pitch our tent. The skies opened up and we experienced first-hand

the strength of Sumatra’s monsoon rainy season. Way too strong and

wet for us, so we looked around and found a temporary clinic near the

airport. Luckily we received permission to spend the night there. We

soon found out that this was the headquarters of the entire staff of

the Indonesian ministry of Health, Water Sanitation and Disease

Control. We immediately felt connected to these people. We plan on

sending water purifiers directly to them when we return home this


They were all sleeping on the marble floor and we were invited to

join them, although as is Muslim custom, Amana would be sleeping in

another room with the women. Just before nightfall, the rain stopped

and we walked along the airport and talked with the local people. One

man had lost 18 of his family members -- can you image? Several

people asked for just basic medicine like neosporin and where are the

doctors? One family had been given a case of soap and asked us what

it was for?

After an evening meeting by all the ministers, we tried sleeping

directly on marble, which was difficult. I did manage to fall asleep

until 5 a.m. when there were many screams. We were having a 6.2

aftershock and we all ran out of the building into the hot night air.

Thirty minutes later there was another one. Many of the ministers,

who were beautiful caring and loving people, were now leaving to be

taken down their coast by the U.S. helicopters. This was the first

time the indigenous people living in villages down the coast would

have any outside contact. I just laid back down of the marble when

there was a explosion and everyone ran out again as one of the

helicopters had just crashed. Smoke was rising up just as the morning

light appeared, and everyone was afraid for the ministers. We soon

learned they weren’t on the this helicopter and 10 Marines were

injured but no one seriously hurt -- a blessing.

For years now, Westerners weren’t allowed here in Banda Aceh as

the GAM, the rebel insurgents, had been fighting for independence.

With this immense reconstruction project beginning, the Gam have been

quiet, although they stole a truck full of food while we were there.

We finally got to the airport on this event-filled morning four hours

early. The plane was way oversold, and there was already a line. We

met and discussed our impressions with Zaki Chebab, the political

editor of Lebanese Television (, who had been here

for over a week. He travels to all places like this globally and

explained clearly how most of the aid pledged will never get here as

the rich Western countries and the Eastern Countries have great

difficulty trusting each other. He sadly shared that “logistics keeps

most of the pledges from ever reaching the people.” He asked Colin

Powell at the press conference in Jakarta. “Are you offering aid to

this Muslim country from your heart or for political reasons?”

In conclusion, there is a definite air of hope as several thousand

relief workers are working 24 hours a day on a monumental task. They

have plenty of food in our opinion, but lack shelter, clean water or

filtration systems. Everyone we talked too said good things about

America, and we have an improved image here in Indonesia. Our taxi

driver even had a U.S. flag on the inside ceiling of his truck.

We flew back to Medan and discussed the situation with U.N.

security coordinator Reg Mills ( clearly was

aware of the difficulty having American and Australian troops here in

the middle of tension-filled Sumatra.

Since we left they have closed Banda Aceh to all foreigners except

one registered as organized workers and they also gave the all

militaries until March 26 to leave.

Our journey hadn’t ended yet, as flying back to Bali the pilot

aborted the landing as a wind-swept rain storm blocked our return and

we circled the airport until the rain stopped so we could land. And

about 5:30 am the next morning Amana woke me up, as there was an

extremely low tide and wanted to know if there was a tsunami coming?

* PAUL HEUSSENSTAMM is a Laguna Beach resident