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Volunteers, locals struggle with language
11 June 2006
by Slamet Susanto

Java, Indonesia: "Kulo mboten saged ngomong londo," said a patient to a volunteer from a Hungarian medical team assisting Yogyakarta quake survivors.

The woman, Sarinah, 70, was responding to a question about whether she could speak English by saying, "I cannot speak londo (a colloquial Javanese word for English)."

Since they did not share a common language, the old woman from Tujak village, Gunungkidul, could only sit quietly in front of the foreign volunteer, who is among 28 Hungarians who came a day after the May 27 quake to provide medical assistance.

When an interpreter intervened, the volunteer learned the old woman was suffering from distress and trauma after the quake destroyed her house. Luckily, none of her family members had died in the disaster, which killed at least 5,800 people.

With hundreds of Tujak villagers flocking to the foreign medical team's makeshift hospital, the two interpreters were overwhelmed with work.

In Jati hamlet in the hardest-hit regency, Bantul, the situation was the same.

"Matur nuwun (thank you), Sir," said Sumaryono, 56, after receiving his prescription from a medical volunteer from Taiwan, whose team had set up a medical post in Bantul.

An interpreter then approached him and explained that the volunteer was asking him to bring sick people to the makeshift hospital.

Sumaryono, 56, nodded in agreement, then laughed, and the volunteer laughed back. They could share laughter even if they didn't understand each other's words.

Volunteers and patients used sign language, but interpreters were around to prevent misunderstandings.

"We came immediately to help people. That's the important thing," said Fadel Ahmad of Turkey, whose team was working at the Bogor Army Strategic Corps emergency hospital in Tanggotan, Bantul.

Sirinart Sahapruttanont, a spokesman for the Thai medical team, said his team had requested help from Indonesian students to overcome the language barrier.

"Most of the relief agencies are focusing their aid on Bantul, so 50 of our volunteers are delivering medical care in Klaten, which has received less attention," he said.

Meanwhile, a U.S. military team is ending its relief operation in Bantul, the hardest-hit regency, its commander said Sunday.

"Our operation is almost over. We'll be finished with this in the next three or four days," Col. Thomas Goben told AFP in Bantul.

He said a medical team from the U.S. Marines had treated more than 3,500 survivors and said the mission had been "a big success."

"We very quickly were able to provide medical assistance to local hospitals and to the TNI (the Indonesian military). Categorically we can call this entire mission a success," he said.

He said he expected the operation would improve military relations between the U.S. and Indonesia.

"We're hoping to do more military-to-military operations in the future," he said.

He also said he was pleased by the warm reception the team had received from locals.

"People accept us without reservations. Everywhere we go (there are) smiling faces, people waving."

The May 27 earthquake killed more than 5,800 people and left thousands more injured.