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Swiss helicopter brings baby Erica home to Aceh town

Swiss helicopter brings baby Erica home to Aceh town

As part of the humanitarian relief effort on the west coast of Indonesia's Aceh province, UNHCR and a Swiss helicopter have helped a baby who underwent urgent surgery in Meulaboh to return home to the devastated town of Calang.
25 January 2005
Baby Erica and her parents on their way home to Calang town in Indonesia's tsunami-battered Aceh province.

MEULABOH, Indonesia, Jan 25 (UNHCR) - When two-month-old Erica started screaming in pain from a swollen neck two weeks ago, her devoted father vowed to do everything he could to save the baby who survived last month's tsunami on the west coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh.

Ilyas bin Ali, 35, came down from the safety of a hillside encampment for victims of last month's tsunami, to have Erica treated by a team of German and French paramedics visiting the battered town of Calang. But her condition was so serious that baby Erica had to be airlifted to Meulaboh hospital further down the coast for surgery.

On Monday last week, a U.S. Sikorsky helicopter ferried Erica, her father and mother, Idawati, to Meulaboh, one of the centres for relief operations in the ravaged west coast of Aceh. There, frantic aides stopped a UNHCR car at the army helipad and asked the refugee agency to whisk Erica urgently to the town hospital where a Korean volunteer doctor operated to remove an abscess in her swollen neck.

"I swore that I would do everything to save this little baby and bring her back home to Calang," said Ilyas later.

Ilyas recounted how he had grabbed Erica on that fateful Sunday, December 26, when an earthquake of magnitude 9 on the Richter scale with its epicentre offshore, sent giant waves crashing into villages from Indonesia all the way to Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

Ilyas, his wife, two children and mother-in-law were having breakfast in Calang when the earth trembled. They soon heard people yelling: "Run, run, the water is coming." He took Erica in his arms and sprinted to the nearby hills. Idawati followed, running with their three-year-old son.

"I glanced back and saw this huge wall of water coming with a thunderous roar," Idawati said. But, she couldn't outrun the huge wave and her son was swept away. Later she found herself holding a piece of wood for dear life. When the water ebbed away, Ilyas came back to town and found the body of his 50-year-old mother-in-law. More than 220,000 people are estimated to have been killed or gone missing in the tsunami in Indonesia.

Out of Calang's population of 9,000, only an estimated 1,000 people survived. Only one slightly damaged stone building remains standing in what was once a thriving coastal city 30 km north of Meulaboh and 200 km south of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

Calang's survivors have been joined by 3,000 disaster-displaced people from neighbouring villages. Now they all live in a ramshackle hillside camp, still too terrified to come down to the ruined coast three weeks after the tsunami hit, still fearful of the deadly sea.

Calang has been so devastated that Indonesian authorities in Meulaboh say rebuilding there will be a huge task. "I think Calang is finished, gone," said one army officer.

But Ilyas is undaunted. A carpenter, he wants to go back to his property by the sea and rebuild his house of tin and wood that the waves swept away.

"All I need is a little help," he said. All he has left are the clothes on his back.

After Erica's surgery, Ilyas waited for two days in Meulaboh for transport back to Calang. Then on Friday the UN refugee agency stepped in to help the family get back home. They put baby Erica, who was by now recovering from her operation, and her parents into a Puma helicopter put at UNHCR's disposal by the Swiss government for its relief efforts for tsunami victims in Indonesia, and flew the family back to Calang.

"It is God's will that brought upon us this disaster. It is also God's will that my family live and I will now do what I can to build a new life," said Ilyas.

By Fernando del Mundo in Meulaboh, Indonesia