SAF aid team returns from quake-stricken Indonesia

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SINGAPORE - Captain Elson Wong is a flight navigator, but he has never been this clear about his bearings.

Beaming widely while holding back tears, he homed in on his loved ones - his wife Lim Yi Jie and six-week-old daughter Amellia.

Daddy was finally home after more than three weeks on a disaster relief mission to Indonesia, after a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck Palu in Sulawesi island on Sept 28, followed shortly by a tsunami. The death toll stood at more than 2,000.

Capt Wong, 30, was in a team sent by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on Oct 2. A total of 46 personnel were involved in the mission. His C-130 aircraft comprising 26 personnel returned on Friday (Oct 26), while the others came back earlier, on Oct 17, in another C-130.

Holding Amellia in his arms, on the tarmac at Paya Lebar Air Base where his plane landed, Capt Wong said: "Her face has definitely changed, she's grown so big! It's so touching to see her again."

Ms Lim, 28, said: "I was not worried at all about him, as I trusted he could complete the mission safely."

The chemist added that she had support from friends and her parents, who were also at the homecoming ceremony attended by Chief of Defence Force Melvyn Ong and Chief of Air Force Mervyn Tan.

(From left) Military Expert 4 Brian Rezel, Lieutenant-Colonel Oh Chun Keong and Captain Elson Wong returned to Singapore on Oct 26, 2018.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

The two C-130 aircraft from the Republic of Singapore Air Force made more than 90 flights during the mission, transporting close to 800 displaced people from the affected areas and delivering about 250 tonnes of supplies such as tents, meal rations, bottled water and medical supplies.

The relief package donated by SAF was worth about $240,000.

Flight engineer Brian Rezel, who celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, is a humanitarian mission veteran. He has taken part in at least eight such efforts since 2000, including the disaster relief missions in the wake of the Aceh tsunami in 2004 and the Nepal earthquake in 2015.

But Military Expert 4 Rezel was visibly emotional as he recounted an episode in Indonesia where an elderly local woman was transported from an affected area.

"She approached me, held my hand and said terima kasih ('thank you' in Bahasa Indonesia)... I choked up," he said, adding that the crew were tired but such gestures motivated them.

ME4 Rezel, who has been in the air force for 39 years, also recounted scenes of devastation from the plane he had never seen before. He said he saw an area about 2km wide that had undergone liquefaction, a process where soil becomes liquid-like in an earthquake. This caused houses to be sucked in and he could only see rooftops "protruding out".

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The mission was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Oh Chun Keong, 39, who graduated from the Indonesian Air Force Command and Staff College in 2015 after a 10-month course.

"When I first heard the news, I was afraid my friends (in Indonesia) were affected, but fortunately, they were all safe," said Lt-Col Oh, who was leading a humanitarian mission for the first time.

He was also delighted to see a familiar face, Lt-Col Ali Sudibyo from the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), whom he met and befriended during bilateral exchanges between the two countries.

These relations helped pave the way for smooth operations during the mission, said Lt-Col Oh.

The mission was intensive, with up to seven flights a day, and the team had to adapt to some unfamiliar practices, such as a different plane-loading process. "But TNI had all the systems and processes in place which made it easy for foreign teams to settle in," he said.

He also felt assured that things had improved when the team left, as some locals were already heading back to the affected areas in Palu.

He said: "While there are still efforts required to reconstruct Palu, I'm quite confident that the Indonesians will be able to do the job."

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