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Village hit by tsunami grateful for U.S. aid

The United States has scored some points on the flip side of its war on terror — the effort to win hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims — in an Indonesian village devastated by last year's tsunami.
A man sits near USAID headquarters in Teungoh Blang Me village, Indonesia, on Nov. 15. Just days after the tsunami struck on Dec. 26, 2004, U.S. military helicopters launched from an offshore flotilla rushed aid to the devastated village. Since then, the U.S. government and the American private sector have committed $1.6 billion to rebuild communities.Ed Wray / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

There aren’t many places in the Islamic world these days where they name streets after American presidents, past or present. But through the tsunami-devastated heart of this village, embedded in a highly conservative Muslim society, runs George Bush and Bill Clinton Road.

“We are one big family and those who help us are our brothers. So Americans are our brothers. They are in our hearts,” says Hasballah Ahba, looking out from atop the village mosque over his birthplace that the giant wave obliterated and U.S. aid is bringing back to life.

Just days after the tsunami struck on Dec. 26, U.S. military helicopters launched from an offshore flotilla rushed in food, water and medicine to desperate people stranded along the Aceh coast of this Indonesian island, saving thousands of lives. Since then, the U.S. government and the American private sector have committed some $1.6 billion to resurrect communities like Lampuuk.

Ten months later and 3,000 miles from here, the helicopters were back in the sky, along with an Army field hospital and construction battalion, when an earthquake ravaged Muslim-dominated Kashmir, and the reactions of some victims to the Americans echoed those heard in Indonesia.

“When they do something against Muslims, we condemn them. Now as they are helping us, we should appreciate them,” said Yar Mohammad, a farmer in Muzaffarabad, the ruined capital of Pakistan’s portion of the divided Himalayan region.

Winning hearts and minds
Clearly, the United States has scored some points on the flip side of its war on terror — the effort to win hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims.

And Washington needs the hitherto effective support of both these countries in its counterterrorism campaign, especially from Pakistan,where leaders of the al-Qaida network are believed to be hiding.

But it’s questionable how far the words of Hasballah and Mohammad reverberate from the savaged shores of Aceh and the wasted mountainsides of Pakistan into the wider Muslim world. Even in communities of the two countries being fed, housed or nursed through American aid, suspicions of Washington’s motives and abhorrence of its policies in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere persist.

“The positive impression the U.S. is trying to make through humanitarian aid may have paid some small dividend, but I wouldn’t overstate the ability of these kinds of gestures to counter what is a very strong anti-American current which is directly connected to U.S. policy,” says Jeffrey Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Analysts also note that while Pakistan and Indonesia have nearly 30 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, neither country is at the heart of the Islamic world, and within these two countries both Aceh and Kashmir are out of the national mainstreams.

Thus American aid to Aceh, Winters says, carries a limited amount of national payoff since many Indonesians regard it as a “pariah province” which until recently had fought a guerrilla war for independence from the central government.

Within Aceh, where the tsunami killed more than 130,000 people, even neighbors may differ drastically about the United States.

In Teungoh Blang Me, where only 100 of the 700 villagers survived the tsunami, many gratefully remembered American helicopter crews dispensing sardines, instant noodles and water after they had gone hungry for three days.

“We’re thankful to Americans for coming from so far away. We don’t care about American policies as long as they come to help,” said Fauzi Ali, a 49-year-old schoolteacher whose leg and both arms were broken when his house collapsed under the wave. He was certain to lose his infected limbs until a U.S. helicopter whisked him to a hospital and full recovery.

In Lampuuk, which has benefited from more than $300,000 in official U.S. aid, pro-American sentiments are expressed without reservations.

A visit from Bush and Clinton
The tsunami razed everything but the mosque and killed 80 percent of its 6,500 inhabitants. Revival began after Clinton and Bush, father of the current president, visited in February. Since then, American donors have come up with everything from footballs to a water purification plant and funds for a number of cash-for-work schemes, according to Hasballah, an engineer who returned home to rebuild his village.

Still on his long list of plans is the planting of tamarind and casuarina trees along a street that runs past heaps of debris. Once spruced up, he says, it will feature road signs saying  George Bush and Bill Clinton.

But in Teungoh Blang Me, a former university student named Almizan denounced the United States while taking a break from laboring to rejuvenate the village rice paddies — and being paid $3.70 a day by the U.S. government to do it.

“America likes to start wars, attack other countries. That is why we don’t like it,” said Almizan, 23, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

Skeptics among the thankful
While the once not infrequent anti-U.S. demonstrations in Aceh have stopped and polls show that since the tsunami Americans are more favorably regarded in Indonesia at large, Madris Mardani of the radical Islamic Defenders Front believes the United States is up to no good. He insists it recently pressured the Indonesian government to hike gasoline prices and suspects it’s getting involved in Aceh — “just like in the governing of Afghanistan” — because Aceh is the only Indonesian province that enforces Islamic law.

Similar voices were heard in Pakistan following the earthquake that killed at least 86,000 people and left 3 million homeless. “There is no need for American forces here. I think our intelligence agencies should monitor the activities of Americans in sensitive areas like Kashmir,” said Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for the Islamic opposition coalition, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal.

A poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, released before the earthquake, showed that only 23 percent of Pakistanis held a favorable view of the United States, but the U.S. assistance may boost that number. “This will have a positive effect and will help lessen hostility in the Islamic world to the Americans,” said Khalid Mahmood, an analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, days after the quake hit.

In Indonesia, favorable opinions of the U.S. rose from a low of 15 percent in 2003 to 38 percent, with tsunami aid credited for the rebound, according to the poll released in June.

Among many interviewed in Aceh, the criticism is reserved for the American government, not its people.

Even Madris, who says his Jakarta-based front has been accused of siding with terrorists, remarked: “Actually we have to thank the American people. We have to be fair and objective. This is a humanitarian mission and we have to be happy with the American role.”