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Unlikely allies find mutual respect in search for bodies
By Philip Cornford, Herald Correspondent in Banda Aceh
January 24, 2005
"They come as angels. They are our friends," said Almascaty after the fundamentalist's first meeting yesterday with an Australian army captain.
In another place, in different circumstances, Mr Almascaty would probably regard the Australian army as an enemy, an ally of the Great Satan, America.
"Then we would attack them," he said, slicing a finger across his throat.
But in the stinking rubble of devastated areas of Banda Aceh, the Aussie Angels and the hardline warriors of Islam have become mutually respectful co-workers.
Mr Almascaty is the leader of 250 men from Laskar Pembela Islam, the Soldiers of Islam, the militant arm of the 800,000-strong Front Pembela Islam. Among them are veterans who have fought in Afghanistan and against Christians in Ambon and central Sulawesi.
But in Banda Aceh they have volunteered for the worst imaginable tasks - helping the Indonesian military recover bodies from the vast areas of ruins left in the wake of the tsunami.
Now they have asked the Australians for help - and the commander of the First Combat Engineer Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Cumming, said he would be "happy to help them" when he can.
A month after the worst natural disaster of modern times, tens of thousands of bodies lie rotting beneath tonnes of rubble in Banda Aceh and other coastal towns.
About 1100 bodies were recovered on Saturday, bringing the total to 94,584. But another 38,000 are listed as missing, and the search goes on from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.
An Australian Army captain and two warrant officers approached the Laskar Pembela Islam on Friday to help them recover a body the engineers had uncovered while clearing rubble.
"We wanted to make sure that the proper recovery and burial formalities were observed," Colonel Cumming said. The Laskar Pembela Islam were impressed and sent a team.
They had their own need for help. The volunteers have no heavy lifting or moving equipment and cannot get to bodies buried under tonnes of rubble.
"They are doing a magnificent job," Colonel Cumming said. "Our job is the removal of building rubble and if they need rubble removed to get to bodies, we will be happy to help them."
There is only one qualification: the job will have to be close to where the Australian heavy equipment is working because it is very difficult to truck it around.
At present, they are within 500 metres of an area of huge destruction where the Laskar Pembela Islam estimate there are thousands of bodies still to be recovered.