Flying for Life in Sumatra
The Tsunami angels of mercy
For nearly sixty years, Mission Aviation Fellowship has been speeding physical and spiritual hope to many of the world’s most isolated and suffering people. Today, MAF is a worldwide multinational team operating over 130 light aircraft in more than thirty countries. Without these aircraft, thousands of men, women and children would today be without adequate food, clean water and medical care. MAF aircraft penetrate into remote areas by flying across deserts, jungles, mountains and swamps to reach those who are deprived of the basic necessities for a full and happy life.
Based in Sumatra’s northern province of Aceh, MAF aircraft are flying for Samaritan’s Purse and Operation Blessing International (OBI). Sumatra, the westernmost island in Indonesia, nearest the epicentre of the earthquake, is one of the places worst hit by the Boxing Day tsunami. In Aceh, villages have been levelled, roads and bridges obliterated, and communications virtually wiped out.
At the beginning of relief operations, US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, ‘What these Asian nations need are small fixed-wing planes that can get to the remote areas.’ Thankfully, MAF’s aircraft responded to this need and three MAF planes have been in operation.
The larger Cessna Caravan has made up to three trips a day between Medan and Meulaboh, bringing in OBI boxes and supplies for Samaritan’s Purse, as well as taking people between the two towns. Priority is given to Samaritan’s Purse and OBI, but if space allows, other workers including those from the Red Cross, World Relief and Tearfund are also flown. Returning to Meulaboh, the ground staff wait ready with the next load of OBI boxes. No time is wasted; it is important to do as many flights as possible.
OBI responds to the need for support in disaster areas. Boxes of OBI food supplies are flown every day by MAF to refugee camps and areas of deepest need. Each box contains enough rice, sugar, canned fish and cooking oil to last one person for two to three days. Each flight carries at least 140 boxes.
Distributing Pur Packs, a new product for purifying water and making it ready to drink in half an hour, Samaritan’s Purse is making it a high priority to provide fresh, clean water. Along with the Pur Packs, water pumps were flown in on the MAF Caravan to enable the team to pump wells, removing the salt water and waiting for the fresh water to flow back in.
The Cessna 206 is landing on roads in the Meulaboh area which local people have helped to clear. The amphibious Beaver aircraft is ferrying vital food and medical supplies to remote communities around Meulaboh. With its unique ability to land on land and water, the Beaver can reach areas which have been impossible for other planes to get to. It is averaging four flights a day. Food is being distributed, but one problem encountered is that there is no infrastructure to ensure that the food is passed out evenly.
Both the 206 and the Beaver are flying to smaller villages and locations along the north-western coast of Sumatra. With many of the bigger NGOs working in larger areas, MAF is concentrating its flying in the smaller, more remote locations. The 206 lands at four key locations, serving the refugee camps, and the Beaver lands at river deltas between these places. The road between Meulaboh and Banda was completely destroyed so the people are reliant on the flights for food.
The gratitude of local people is astounding. They arrive in crowds to clear roads and patches of ground for the planes to land. In spite of losing everything, they are still willing to share what little they have. Jared Wiley, who is accompanying the Beaver’s pilots because he speaks Indonesian, reflects, ‘When we finished clearing all the debris off the road, we had to wait for the plane to come and test the strip. While we were waiting, the people offered us some young coconuts. Before I could catch myself, I accepted the offer. Then despite our insisting that we were fine without it, they still climbed a tree and picked several coconuts for us. Here we were, on this really remote strip with people who have nothing – not even shoes for their kids – and they gave to us the little that they could offer.’
Kate Allen from MAF UK reports, ‘Looking at the beautiful colour of the ocean as it gently laps the shore, it is hard to imagine its destructive power.’ Yet the devastation speaks for itself. Many people have lost everything. In the small town of Calang, a boy of fifteen shared his story with Beaver pilot Rune Karlsson. ‘He was telling me he had a motorbike and as he saw the waves coming he was speeding up the hill. He saved himself and saw the wave destroy the place. Both his parents died. The only thing he has left is the motorbike.’
Flying to some areas and looking at the scale of the destruction, it is difficult to imagine where to begin and even how the people can begin living again. But life is going on. As operations move into the rehabilitation phase, many relief agencies are starting to leave the area. Roads are being reopened and the main road between Medan and Meulaboh is now open, making the distribution of aid easier.
Gift of hope
The immediate needs of the people of Sumatra are being met. MAF and other aid agencies have been working non-stop since the disaster struck. Lisna, a survivor at one refugee camp, explains her thoughts to Kate, ‘Now it’s better. Before, we had nothing. The first week after the tsunami, there was nothing. Everybody was scared to go back down after the ocean flood.’ People need food, water and shelter, but in the long term there is much to be done for the psychological needs of this devastated island. Fear remains a strong emotion. Many are frightened to go near the ocean in case it happens again. Fishermen do not want to go back in their boats, and no-one wants to eat fish from the sea, fearing they have been feeding on the bodies of their dead loved ones.
MAF pilots are astounded at the attitude of the Sumatran people. They have gone through so much and yet can still smile. MAF Area Manager Wally Wiley is thankful for the part MAF is playing in the rebuilding of this once luscious and beautiful country. ‘I see the west coast as being a niche for MAF’s work. I would say the amphibious Beaver has been the most strategic aircraft we’ve had.’ Planes continue to bring supplies to remote locations, working in partnership with others to bring a ray of hope for the future of this island. Reflecting on the past weeks, Wally concludes, ‘It’s mind-boggling what God has done. It’s so sad to see the devastation, but through this to see God working, opening doors.’
Mission Avioation Fellowship
Castle Hill Ave, Folkstone, Kent CT20 2TN
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