BEUTONG ATEUH VILLAGE, Indonesia - With the wheels of his clapboard truck stuck deep in the slippery mud, the driver closed his weary eyes in exasperation. Sabril Swardi has been on the road for five days, delivering rice, dried noodles and bottled water to tsunami victims on the hardest hit west coast of Indonesia’s Northern Sumatra.
He has made just 60 miles in the past 17 hours: At less than 4 mph, he might as well have been on foot. Competing for space on the narrow mountain pass are carloads of people frantic to find relatives on the coast and vans overstuffed with refugees and their belongings.
‘‘People are happy when they get the food, but it is not enough. We need to bring more, and we can’t,’’ said Swardi, who managed just one food delivery to the coastal city of Meulaboh since the Dec. 26 tragedy.
This is supposed to be world’s largest humanitarian operation, an extraordinary response to the biggest natural disaster in years. But in Indonesia, the relief effort is in danger of getting mired in separatist tensions, local politics, ineptitude and simply, the mud.
The most pressing problem is that the earthquake and ensuing tsunami wiped out all but one road to the west coast of Aceh, with its 1 million people. Known locally as the Beutong Ateuh road, the lifeline to this isolated population cuts through nearly impenetrable rain forests and zigzags its way through steep volcanic peaks before it descends to the devastated coastal city of Meulaboh and surrounding villages.
It is not just topology that makes this terrain complicated to navigate. The Achenese separatist movement, GAM, which has waged one of the longest running wars in Asia, is so deeply entrenched in the isolated villages that many Indonesians fear to travel here.
There also are complaints that the Indonesian government never bothered to pave the mountain road because of the strength of separatist sentiments in these parts.
’’The government has neglected us,’’ said Mohammed Isar, 45, one of the many frustrated drivers stuck on the road on Thursday. ‘‘As a result, there are so many people who need aid and just can’t get it.’’
The United States and many international relief agencies have not even attempted to deliver aid by land, confining their efforts to helicopter deliveries. But the helicopters can carry only limited loads. And without a land route, there are no international relief workers on the ground to facilitate the distribution of aid. The aid, for example, is not being distributed in the small mountain towns just above the coast, which are swollen with refugees.
Before the tsunami, Meulaboh and other coastal communities running down the coast were connected to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh by a relatively modern road and bridges. The waves wiped out those roads, as well as telephone and electricity lines.
’’There is nothing to eat in Meulaboh so we had to leave,’’ said Rufni Abdullah, a 37-year-old refugee, who was wading through the mud in rubber flip-flops with a baby wrapped in a sarang on her hip. ‘‘I saw some helicopters, but I didn’t get any aid.’’ The truck in which Abdullah was traveling had been broken for two days, blocking Indonesian relief vehicles that were trying to get in from the opposite direction.
The snarl is a result of the obvious Catch-22: The longer the delays in aid reaching the hardest-hit victims, the more who will try to flee, leading to a dangerous gridlock on the mountain road.
That was the situation on the road on Thursday.
In one pickup truck, an extended family huddled under a tarpaulin in a light rain, a bicycle and jerrycans of fuel strapped to the roof.
The wheels churned up rivulets of mud; the engine belched black smoke in futility as the overloaded truck tried to navigate a particularly slick ascent. Drivers of blocked aid trucks hopped out to push the truck uphill by its bumper.
’’Kerja,‘‘ or ’’Move it,‘‘ a crowd of mud-splattered travelers shouted, as it cheered to encourage a truck that had skidded three times in the mud.