Remnants & reminders of the help they got

Remnants & reminders of the help they got

MS LOLA Alfira remembers the first time she saw a warship at Meulaboh.

"It was large and when it docked, smaller vehicles emerged. People of Meulaboh had never seen anything like it," the nurse recalls of that day, a Sunday, 10 years ago.

She also remembers SAF Chinooks flying in. They had come to deliver aid to this town shaken by earthquake and ravaged by the subsequent deadly waves.

"Singapore was like our hero - it was the first country to respond in our time of distress," she adds.

Singapore has left a permanent mark on Meulaboh, both emotional and physical. Plaques bearing the Singapore flag or references to Singapore-related contributions to the rescue effort are found every few hundred metres, including a sign saying "Simpang Temasek" at the corner of a small road.

This port town some 250km or a five-hour drive from Banda Aceh was one of the worst hit by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, losing a third or 40,000 residents. It was cut off from the world when seven tsunami waves pounded it, ploughing through an arterial coastal road serving the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, shattering its pier and swallowing villages.

"Everyone in this town lost someone," says West Aceh district chief Alaidinsyah, whose mother died in the tragedy.

Meulaboh is the main town of this district. A decade later, its population is booming again. Its economy is picking up. However, bent and fading evacuation signs, rusting fences or poles and potholed streets belie just how much help it needed not long ago.

One of the most prominent legacies of Singapore's generosity during the rescue and relief efforts is the Cut Nyak Dhien Hospital, which was almost totally demolished by the tsunami. Singapore pumped in $12 million, resulting in 17 rebuilt buildings with 146 beds, a radiology department and two operating theatres when the official handover took place in July 2010.

Little more than four years later, the clean exterior is a stark contrast to what happens inside. Patients sprawl on soiled mattresses that fill the general wards; some sit on the floor together with visitors. The hospital chief, Dr Akbar Siregar, says maintenance has been lax and the hospital is now operating at overcapacity, even though patients treated for tsunami-related injuries or trauma have long left.

Construction of a two-storey ward building began early this year to keep up with the rising number of patients streaming in from surrounding districts, but it is not scheduled to be completed until the middle of next year.

This hospital is the second best in Aceh, after the one in Banda Aceh. But it is still in dire need of up-to-date equipment such as MRI and CT scans, says Dr Akbar.

"For anything that requires further checks, we have to send patients on a five-hour drive to Banda Aceh," he says.

At the Muhammadiyah orphanages and boarding school - rebuilt in different parts by Singapore's Mercy Relief, Red Cross, Commerzbank AG and Lien Foundation - caretaker Nurazwi proudly shows how beds and wardrobes donated in 2005 remained in good shape. Mercy Relief estimated that the boys and girls' orphanages had two wings refurbished and two rebuilt at a cost of $480,000, with a capacity for 60 orphans aged between 13 and 18. Another $300,000 went into furnishings, landscaping, recreational facilities, books, stationery and uniforms.

Taking out a pile of Singapore textbooks and pots and pans, Madam Nurazwi beams as she holds up what she says are some of the durable remains of the help they got. But she says living conditions have become a squeeze as more girls seek admission, leading to six in a room for a maximum four-bedroom space.

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