"I wish I could fly 24 hours a day"

In the midst of tragedy and farce, relief workers ferry food and water to tsunami survivors in Indonesia.

By James Meek

Published January 4, 2005 3:52PM (EST)

Just after 4 p.m. Monday, with the shadows already lengthening, the ash-gray form of a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter was thudding at speed between the peaks of the forested mountain range that divides the eastern and western sides of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

On board were four aircrew; Arista Idris, an Indonesian worker from the International Organization for Migration; two journalists; and 1,000 pounds of boxed biscuits and fresh water. The helicopter was one of a dozen from the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln being used to shuttle supplies from Banda Aceh airport to the dozens of devastated, cut-off remnants of towns struck by the Boxing Day tsunami.

Crossing the ridge, the aircraft began sledding downward sharply toward the narrow strip of coast worst affected by the disaster. There were signs of life below, even motorbikes moving along the fragments of coast road that escaped destruction.

Some sights were deceptive. An expanse of tall green-fringed palms turned out to conceal the sinister blanket of salty gray mud that has devoured the coastland like mold. The surf washing mildly over the boundaries of old rice fields looked as if it was there to stay: The area's very maps will need to be redrawn.

In a storm of dry leaves, the pilot set the Seahawk down according to the coordinates he was given. It was an unexpectedly Arcadian scene: a lush, deserted clearing in the foothills. In minutes, the helicopter's rotors still turning, the whole cargo of food and water was piled in a neat mound on the grass. But where were the people?

As so often in real horror stories, the tragedy is interspersed with moments of farce. Idris and Jesse Cash, one of the helicopter crewmen, found a gate leading to a comfortable-looking farm. A well-fed woman came up and looked in surprise at the pile of aid in the clearing. In the background, her son, a fleshy boy almost as wide as he was tall, studied the boxes of biscuits with interest.

Somehow, there had been a kink in the operation. Closer to the sea, the woman urged; the refugees from the tsunami were more than a mile up the coast. Cash turned round and marched back to the helicopter. Within a few minutes, sweat rolling down everyone's foreheads in the heat, the food and water were reloaded onto the helicopter and it was in the air again. As the helicopter ate up the distance, shattered houses came into view and, scattered here and there on the slopes, the corrugated metal and plastic sheeting lean-tos of refugees from the waves.

Some of the buildings in the village of Ladong had escaped the merciless waves because they were clustered on higher ground, and they had clearly become a focus for survivors. As the aircraft approached, figures began to run and wave at it. When it set down on Ladong's football field, there were only a handful of children there. "America!" said one boy, wonderingly, pointing at the helicopter and nodding. Cash tried to marshal them firmly into a line just beyond the circumference of the whirling rotor blades. The idea was that they would come up to the door of the helicopter, take a box and make way for the next boy.

So it began, for about two seconds. Then the others began pouring onto the field, hundreds of men, women and children. They began grabbing the aid boxes in darting lunges toward the helicopter cabin door, laughing and grinning at their friends when they got one, as if they had won a prize in a game.

It quickly became clear that the game had a desperate edge. These lean, intense-eyed people, starving and thirsty for clean water, were prepared to fight each other for the packages. Time and again they mobbed the cabin door, while Idris, Cash and his fellow crewman Vince Rodriguez screamed at them to get back above the din of the engine.

But they understood there were not enough boxes for everyone, and they would not stand back. One man stood on a helicopter wheel, putting his head perilously close to the spinning rotor blades. The pilot looked back anxiously. The thump of the rotors intensified the hysteria.

At one point the crowd seemed ready to fall back and sit, waiting their turn, but only for a moment. An older man with the light of excitement and fear in his eyes and an expression somewhere between a smile and a grimace appeared to sit cross-legged and then bound to his feet almost in the same motion as he saw that other refugees were not playing by the Americans' rules.

Then the handout was over and the Indonesians, deeply grateful and desperately feeling there should be more, moved back. Some had boxes and some did not, and people of both kinds waved as the helicopter prepared to take off. One thin boy wearing nothing but a pair of shorts looked me in the eyes and patted his stomach urgently, as if perhaps it had not been understood that he was hungry.

The Seahawk's third and final stop was at a hilltop refugee camp with some 150 survivors. Besides delivering aid the U.S. helicopters are bringing the infirm, the sick, the injured and the pregnant away from the isolated camps and villages and ferrying them to the relative security of camps on the other side of the mountains. No one was in urgent need of evacuation. But one woman, Edans, said: "We don't have enough food, clothes or medicine. Thousands are dead. The whole village has gone." Cash promised to return with food, and the Seahawk took off again. Within a few minutes, it was back at Banda Aceh, being reloaded.

The turnaround of the helicopter was too swift, and the noise of the rotors too loud, to allow an interview of any of the crew. During a brief lull earlier, Dave Matthews, a crewman on another Seahawk, described how they had been forced to abort the pickup of an injured refugee when the helicopter was mobbed by a desperate crowd. "I don't want to go back to the ship," he said. "There's too much to be done. I wish I could fly 24 hours a day."

James Meek

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