He isn’t here. My hopes of finding Eko foundered on the rocks of my only contact, Ahmet Hussein. The young man frowned, probably wondering why an elderly foreigner had turned up in this desolate and devastated place.
‘Maybe if you tell me...’
I showed him Tevfik’s card. ‘I was told that Mr. Hussein was working in Lampu’uk.’
He turned over the card, smiled, then handed it back. ‘Tevfik has lost touch. Ahmet has long gone.’ He squinted at the midday sun, and opened the car door. ‘Several months, now.’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Where can I find your local co-ordinator?’
The young man pointed down the rock-strewn road. ‘Follow that, it leads to the beach. Our compound is there.’ He levered himself into the driving seat and turned on the ignition. ‘Ask for Ibrahim.’
I thanked him. He waved, and he was on his way out of town, travelling on the road back to Aceh. With nothing better to do, I fished out my sun hat from my backpack, put it on, and walked towards the beach.
Twenty-nine minutes passed; each minute reminding me that the after-effects of dengue was still hampering my movements. My bones ached, and I realised that I was far from being fit enough for such an adventure. I stopped to rest several times — leaning against, or sitting on a large rock — until what was left of my strength returned.
When I saw the Muslim Relief flag fluttering from a pole outside a distribution centre, I heaved a sigh of relief. Salvation awaited.
But I was a long way off. A tarnished sign on the gate said that entry was prohibited except for authorised personnel, and the impassive guard who eyed me up and down regarded me as an unwelcome visitor.
Understandable. My backpacker image identified me as an outsider from any Aid Agency working in the Aceh province, not least emphasised by my lack of transport.
Entry and exit poles — cantilever mechanism similarly used in car-parks — barred the way in. Two guards were sitting on plastic chairs outside their cubicle, both were smoking. A patchy-haired mongrel, one ear missing and rib bones showing, was sniffing around more in hope than expectation of a tasty meal.
I walked up to the entrance pole and beckoned one guard over. I hoped his English was sufficient for us to have a meaningful conversation. ‘Can I talk to your coordinator, please? His name is Ibrahim.’
He appeared to understand. ‘Who are you?’
I dug into my bag and pulled out my passport. ‘Here,’ I said.
He grabbed it, flipped through the pages, and showed it to his colleague who repeated the performance. If they had gone into a huddle, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
My legs felt heavy, swollen from the exertion of avoiding pot-holes and rubble along the way. Was my quest becoming futile? Even if I managed to talk to Ibrahim how could I make him understand why Eko was so important to me.
Eko helped me come to terms with losing Angelique, and...
One of the guards was beckoning to me, passport in hand. I walked with him beyond a few prefabricated shelters with shuttered windows and rusty tin roofs, past a line of trucks and pick-up trucks, until reaching an open door of a more modern unit. Here he paused.
‘Wait here,’ he said, as he stepped inside.
A few moments later he reappeared together with a middle-aged, rotund man wearing breeches and fanning his face with a straw sombrero.
‘Howdy,’ I said.
The cowboy plonked the hat on his head, extended his hand and returned my passport. If he was surprised by me — a total stranger — turning up on his doorstep, he didn’t show it. ‘I’m Ibrahim. You know me?’
I kept it simple. ‘Colleagues of yours have told me that you are the local coordinator for Muslim Relief.’ Ibrahim inclined his head, which I regarded as confirmation. I carried on. ‘I need your help to find a young man called Eko who could be working for you here in Lampu’uk.’
‘I’m not sure I understand.’
And I didn’t blame him. How could I explain?
‘It’s a long story...’
Ibrahim frowned, contemplated. Maybe he had weightier matter to consider, but at last he shook his head.
‘I know no-one of that name, but that’s not surprising. Our work here is carried out by contractors.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
I must have looked disappointed because Ibrahim reached out and put a hand on my arm. ‘I’m going out to the field. If you want to come along for the ride, I’ll get our driver to rustle up a flask of coffee, and I’ll listen to your story.’
The thought of coffee eased my tiredness and raised my spirits. His offer was about as much as I could expect, and it could take me one step closer to finding Eko.
‘Yes, I’d like that,’ I said.
The “field” was a short distance away. Ibrahim explained that Muslim Relief was funding the construction of seven hundred houses. Rebuilding Lampu’uk.
‘It’s a huge project,’ he said.
I could only nod my head. It made my “Eko project” seem small beer.
Ibrahim ploughed on. ‘And of course there are many challenges. My job is to oversee the work, make sure quality is maintained. Our community is very active in voicing their concerns if our contractors take short cuts.’
Again, I nodded. The Jakarta Times reported that the Tsunami Relief Fund ran into many billions of dollars, the biggest in history. With money being scattered like confetti, greed and corruption were rife, and I didn’t envy Ibrahim’s job.
That afternoon opened my eyes to the enormous difficulties that faced Aid agencies. Under pressure to spend, spend, sometimes with prolific disregard to normal controls, and with the basic infrastructure restored to a working level, the overwhelming need was to rebuild houses. According to Ibrahim, only a few agencies had the specialist skills to oversee such projects.
At one site we got out of our air-conditioned pick-up into the hazy heat of the afternoon sun to watch a chain-gang, all men wearing sarongs and untroubled by the heat, hauling dusty cement bags off the back of a truck.
But no Eko.
‘There must be hundreds of workers,’ I said, trying to steer the conversation around to locating him among them.
Ibrahim grimaced, wiped a hand across his face. ‘Far too many. It’s a headache keeping track, believe me.’ He poked up his sombrero with a finger and squinted at me. ‘Anyway, I have business to attend to, but my driver will take you on a tour round the sites while I’m gone. Maybe you’ll find who you’re looking for.’
I hoped so.