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 hit110,000 of the 160,000 deaths reported so far have occurred hereand 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.
The restrictions drew immediate criticism from international aid officials. "I am sure the Indonesian government will agree with me that the most important thing is to save lives and not have deadlines," Jan Egeland, chief of the U.N.'s tsunami-relief effort, told reporters after the announcement, adding that he was "worried" by the restrictions on the movement of aid workers. In Banda Aceh, aid officialswho preferred to speak anonymously to avoid offending their Indonesian hostssaid the move could interfere with their work, but much would depend on how strictly the restrictions were applied. "We'll just have to see where the military wants to take this," says a senior official with a major relief organization.
The Indonesian government's actions may have to do with the dilemma it faces in Aceh in the wake of the tsunami. For nearly 30 years, the province has been wracked by a separatist insurgency that has claimed the lives of some 12,000 people, mostly civilians. The Free Aceh Movement (or G.A.M., its Indonesian acronym), the main rebel group fighting for independence, asserts that Indonesian troops have committed widespread human-rights abuses in Aceh and that Jakarta has shortchanged the province over its share of the revenues from its oil and gas reserves. The government, in turn, says that G.A.M. fighters do not reflect the wishes of the vast majority of Acehnese, who want the province to remain a part of Indonesia, and that the rebels are merely bandits who kill and loot.