Meulaboh, Indonesia When the first helicopter descended on this city 10 days ago, bringing food and water to people reeling from loss and hunger, children waved their arms skyward. Adults screamed in desperation and joy. Some cried tears of relief.
But Saturday, as helicopters traversed the sky in steady procession, hardly anyone even raised their eyes from the ground. Most here had grown accustomed to the aid coming in steadily. Many had also grown used to not getting much of it.
"The distribution is no good," said Effida Roslia, a mother of two, whose house in the village of Ujung Baru is now an island of scattered bricks stuck in the center of a marsh that formed the graveyard for many of her neighbors. "I've heard that everything has come here now, but I haven't gotten anything."
Two weeks after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, killing as many as 35,000 people in this city alone, the situation on the Indonesian island of Sumatra illustrates both the concrete achievements of the relief effort, and the growing sense among survivors that food, water and medicine are not reaching everyone in equal quantities.
It is a dynamic that may ultimately determine the fate of tens of thousands of people. In the Indonesian province of Aceh, the center of the disaster, some 800,000 people are expected to depend on aid for the next three to 12 months, said the U.N. official overseeing the relief effort in Indonesia, Michael Elmquist.
On Saturday, helicopters flown by U.S., Singaporean and Indonesian military crews brought fresh loads of relief to a town in which more than 30,000 people are believed to be homeless. They added to stockpiles now feeding people in 29 refugee camps throughout the city's environs, along with others in communities along Sumatra's west coast, the closest land to the epicenter of the giant quake.
Yet people relying upon that aid complained that relief goods are scarce. Much of the relief is being brought to settlements controlled by the Indonesian military.
"The military has ordered that all the aid dropped by the helicopters be taken to their base," said Carifuddin, 46, a retired police officer whose house in Ujung Baru was destroyed by the water. He accused the soldiers of keeping too much. "We have to stand in line for two hours to get two packs of instant noodles. There is some rice, but some get it and some don't."
A member of the Meulaboh city planning board, Tajudin Marlian, concurred that the Army is depriving needier people of relief.
"It is a fact that all the aid is carried by TNI trucks that take the aid to their own base" he said, using the acronym for the Indonesian armed forces. "How could that be fair? They are taking a little bit for themselves."
At an Indonesian Army base here, Col. Geerhan Lantara, commander of the relief mission for western Aceh, denied such accusations. "There is no problem," he said.
In recent days, U.N. relief officials and aid groups have concentrated on examining conditions in settlements along the coast. Officials said they now thought very few survivors remained beyond the reach of the aid network.
"When you look at the landscape, it's like Hiroshima," said Patrick Hourtane, Meulaboh field coordinator for the French medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. "You see some walls, otherwise it's just a white square that was the place for a house. And it's like this for miles. ... You get the feeling everybody died."