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Tsunami survivors get high-tech help

/ Source: The Associated Press

Before the killer tsunami leveled his house and swept away his daughter, Umar Bin Adam had never used a computer.

Now, squatting in a makeshift refugee camp in a schoolyard on an Indonesian island, he taps a number into a satellite phone, mystified but grateful for the high-tech help in his hunt for his daughter.

"For me, it's really a big help. I can communicate with my family," Bin Adam, 38, said after replacing the black handset connected to the nearby dish that beams his words into space.

Thousands of foreign aid workers flooding into the Asian zones hit hardest by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami are bringing sophisticated phones, radios and computers — altering the communications landscape in some of the world's poorest, most-remote lands.

People in stricken regions say they hope the disaster-response crowd will leave behind the gear when they go — and aid workers say at least the mobile-phone networks they're rebuilding to help foster the aid effort likely will remain.

Humanitarian workers point to satellite phones and remote Internet connections as among the latest tools helping them coordinate the world's biggest-ever aid-delivery effort.

In northern Sumatra's Aceh Province, closest to the epicenter of the earthquake and hardest hit by the tsunami, the disaster ruined many mobile-phone signal-repeater posts, leaving residents and aid workers alike cursing poor coverage and dropped signals.

Many foreign aid workers leapfrog the shaky mobile system via satellites. There are now two networks for handheld satellite phones and laptop-sized systems with more bandwidth can be used to access the Internet.

Survivors in this region where 106,000 were killed in the disaster aren't so lucky.

Companies help rebuild
In the provincial capital Banda Aceh the tremors and waves smashed countless Internet cafes and many survivors lost their mobile phones in their flight to safety. Terrestrial telephone lines are down in many places.

Sweden's Ericsson AB and other major telecommunications companies are helping rebuild the mobile-phone network smashed by the waves in Asia, with Ericsson donating ten radio-base stations for Banda Aceh's network, along with hundreds of mobile phones and staff.

U.S.-based Motorola Inc. says it has donated the equivalent of $3 million in cash and equipment across tsunami-stricken Asia.

Dag Nielsen, head of Ericsson's disaster-response team, says Banda Aceh's mobile network will be vastly improved, using technology called GPRS which has greater data-transmission possibilities than the former network. Aid workers will be the first to benefit, but in the long term it will help the Acehnese.

Nielsen, who helped set up a network in Afghanistan's war-ruined capital, Kabul, said that unlike earlier humanitarian missions there are no plans to dismantle Banda Aceh's boosted mobile-phone network when the foreigners leave.

Across the Indian Ocean, in Sri Lanka, officials maintained links between rebel and government forces, helping prevent fighting from breaking out in the tsunami chaos in the country where nearly 31,000 died.

"We kept up the contacts with both the sides using mobile and satellite phones," said Helen Olafsdottir, spokeswoman for the Norwegian-headed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which oversees a 2002 cease-fire.

'Telecoms without Borders'
A France-based aid group called "Telecoms sans Frontieres" — or "Telecoms without Borders" —is helping people like Bin Adam contact loved-ones by setting up satellite phones in refugee camps.

While younger, urban Acehnese are accustomed to surfing the Internet and chatting on mobile phones, older refugees are thrilled and bewildered at finding their words sent through space.

The European Union-funded program is aimed at helping reconnect shattered communities, while offering a chance for panicked survivors to hash out their emotions.

"In this kind of disaster, there's often post-traumatic stress disorder, so it's important to talk, to release your emotions with your support group, which is friends and family," says John Abo, who helps run the telephones set up under a tent in the schoolyard south of Banda Aceh where about 1,000 survivors are sheltering.

Ragged children inspect the black, shoebox-sized telephones, which are connected by a line to small dishes set up several yards (meters) away, aimed at the heavens.

Bin Adam looks glum as he hangs up after his call, which yielded no news of his daughter Juliana, whom he last saw in their home on the morning of Dec. 26.

There's one thing all the fancy technology can't do to help Bin Adam.

The rising waters that snatched away his daughter and home also swept away everything inside the house, including the paper on which he had jotted all telephone numbers except the one he had memorized and already dialed.

Associated Press writer Dilip Ganguly in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.