Rising from the Rubble

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It's 11:30 a.m., and banda Aceh airport, once a sleepy, two-flight-a-day aerodrome that consists pretty much of just a pair of large sheds, is as busy as an international hub. Two large Malaysian Sea King helicopters lumber down the runway and into the sky. As a parked Chinook from Singapore fires up its engines, two Australian army Hueys swoop in a few feet off the ground and sideslip into their designated parking slots. Troops in a grab bag of uniforms hurry back and forth to German, Russian and privately hired helicopters in various stages of loading relief supplies and passengers. Low overhead, a steady stream of U.S. Navy Seahawks clatter past, shuttling between their landing zone on the soccer field next to the airport and the 24-ship American fleet stationed offshore.

In the fixed-wing area, cargo planes from Australia, Britain, Uzbekistan and the U.S. fill up the small parking bay. In front of a Royal Air Force jet, civil defense volunteers from France take a quick break to line up for a group photo. Dressed with Gallic panache in calf-high boots and matching navy blue pants and T shirts, the men joke and laugh as they jockey for position, at first oblivious of three Indonesian soldiers standing stiffly behind them, cradling automatic rifles. Then one of the volunteers turns and waves the troops over to join in the picture taking. Language is at first a barrier, but the bonhomie of the French is infectious, and the troops unbend and agree to pose. They squeeze in among the boisterous volunteers, their orange berets vivid among a sea of floppy blue hats, and, in the end, everyone grins cheesily.

The world has come together to give aid to Asia's tsunami-stricken areas and, by and large, it has been warmly received. Yet in Indonesia's Aceh province, the welcome is proving awkward. Of all the many places struck by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, Aceh was the hardest hit—110,000 of the 160,000 deaths reported so far have occurred here—and needs the most help. Up until now, the relief effort has gone surprisingly smoothly. Some 1,700 soldiers from a score of different national armed forces have joined hands with 2,500 foreign aid workers and volunteers. Doctors and medical-support staff have poured in to treat the sick, clean water (and mobile-phone signals) is flowing again, and while an outbreak of disease remains possible, it hasn't happened yet. People have even started talking about reconstruction.

But a combination of nationalism, suspicion of foreigners and historical baggage may conspire, if not to work against the relief effort, then perhaps to slow it down. Last week the Indonesian authorities set a March 26 deadline for all foreign troops to leave the country (though in an exclusive interview, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tells TIME that deadline might be extended), and started barring aid workers from venturing beyond the towns of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh if they are not escorted by Indonesian soldiers.

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