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Relief Supplies Are Being Stolen: Villagers Claim

By Benstead Taru and Fay Duega

AITAPE, Papua New Guinea (September 4, 1998 - The Independent)--- Concerns have been raised that the millions of kina raised by groups set up specifically for the Aitape tsunami disaster of July 17, 1998 are not being forwarded for this cause.

The Director General of the National Disaster and Emergency Services (NDES), Ludwig Kembu, said that this was one of the concerns raised at a one day workshop held in Aitape yesterday. The workshop was organized by AusAID and was aimed at getting authorities involved in the recovery phase of the disaster, such as the departments of agriculture and livestock, lands, care center administrators as well as the victims, to come up with a single plan which would be used to implement construction work.

Mr. Kembu said that different groups had their own implementation plans and Thursday's meeting would ensure they all combined to come up with only one to implement.

Mr. Kembu said that his office is currently using monies from the fund established by Prime Minister Bill Skate for activities in the area.

Community leaders in the disaster affected areas have also voiced their concerns that while a lot of effort, resources and money were said to have been donated towards the Aitape disaster there was generally fear among them that a lot of the donations were not reaching them.

The community leaders also expressed concern when visited by The Independent that there was concrete evidence before them to prove that a lot of foul play in the conduct of rehabilitation work was evident, especially among local officials. There have also been repeated incidences where stealing and snatching of rations, general provisions and medical supplies which were destined for care centers were diverted to unauthorized landing spots without the notice of authorities.

They further alleged that there were apparently increasing incidents of fraudulent practices and malfeasance by numerous unauthorized persons who have been repeatedly forging signatures of authorized financial delegates to order rations and general supplies from local suppliers in Aitape.

These leaders also claimed that some of the orders raised for purchases were totally irrelevant to the needs of victims at care centers. Some of these items purchased using disaster funds included luxurious items like stereo radio cassettes, refrigerators, spot lights and other accessories.

However, Mr. Kembu said that the NDES has had no such report. He called on those who come across such incidences to report them to the relevant authorities in order for action to be taken.

He said that it was difficult for fraud to occur with the prime minister's fund because apart from the chairman of the trust fund, Bernard Choulai, or his committee members, no other person could get funds out. He said that requests for supplies to be bought had to go through the chairman before funds were released.

The leaders also said that camp officials appointed to take charge of the affairs of respective care centers were not permanently stationed at designated locations to effectively execute their duties. Most of them were transported regularly and unnecessarily between their assigned locations and Aitape and were reported to be conducting their duties by remote control.

The village leaders were also very vocal about the deteriorating living conditions in the care centers. They said that as the wet season was approaching it was imperative that authorities quickly arrange for permanent shelters to be built for all victims.

However, Mr. Kembu, speaking from Aitape yesterday, said that he had visited the care centers and was satisfied with the way work is being carried out.

However, he said that water supply is a major concern. He said that he had been made aware of water-related problems. However, he said that this was being looked into and should be made right when another meeting is held next Tuesday as a follow up to yesterday's, and the implementation phase of recovery finalized.

The water supplies were established by the Adventist Disaster Relief Agency (ADRA) and the Red Cross at all care centers but these have now been claimed to be unsafe for drinking.

Care Centers in Raimbrum, Olbrum, Rowoi, Wipom and Ramo are in need of rectification by responsible authorities. Concerned villagers in Rowoi complained that the four water tanks erected by ADRA were not being used because they are suspected of being contaminated and unsafe for drinking. There is need for these tanks to be relocated to an appropriate location from which good drinking water can be sourced.

The rations supply at care centers is reported to be depleting fast. The victims indicated that the quantity of rations supplied has been dwindling over the past few days and they are concerned that these may shortly cease.

However, Mr. Kembu denied any food shortages at the five authorized care centers of Pou, Rowoi, Olbrum, Aitape town and Ramo. He said that those who were complaining are those not in their usual camps.

He explained that some of the victims have been going out of the care centers to establish land for houses, gardens etc. and have been setting up camp there for some time. They were the ones who expected helicopters to land at their locations, instead of at the designated camp centers.

Meanwhile, attempts by village leaders to negotiate with local authorities to ease certain provisions of the emergency decree to allow the victims to return to their respective sago patches to harvest and process sago to subsidize and supplement their food supplies was refused.

It was also reported that there was a decline in the supply of protein to victims at care centers and victims are attempting to explore avenues where they would be able to supply their own protein requirements.

Mr. Kembu said since the disaster first struck, authorities in the area have been using an international formula to distribute rations. This has seen a decrease in the amount of supplies to families, unlike previously when they were oversupplied.

He said that the people must eventually come to terms with the fact that the help they are currently receiving will not be there forever.

The Independent understands that despite restrictions issued by authorities for movement of people to the Sissano Lagoon area because of contamination of the lagoon, health authorities have indicated that consumption of sea food from the lagoon is fit for human consumption provided it is properly cooked and consumed.

This was revealed in a fax letter of August 27, 1998 by the Promotive and Preventive Health Services Branch in Port Moresby, which was sent to health authorities in Aitape.

For additional reports from The Independent, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Independent (Papua New Guinea).

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