- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Tanzil was at sea when the tsunami hit. He and his crew were miles from land, with no way of knowing that the giant wave that had passed beneath them was on its way toward causing death and destruction that would leave the world in awe.

Hours after the massive wave slammed ashore, the fishermen approached in disbelief at what they saw. More than 100 houses in their village were flattened.

“My house was completely gone,” said Tanzil, who like many here goes by one name.

With his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 5, missing, the questions swirled in his mind. As the tsunami’s gravity sank in, Tanzil spent a week riding from camp to camp on a motor scooter, searching for any sign of his family.

Finally, there was a beam of hope. Someone knew of a 5-year-old girl found alive in a pile of rubble one day after the disaster. She had been taken to a field hospital run by Malaysian army medics.

Tanzil found the hospital, and his wish true. His daughter Inderiani was there, lying bandaged and frail on a bed. Though his wife and older daughter were still missing, life could go on for Tanzil and his younger daughter.

Theirs might be as happy an ending as one will find in Banda Aceh. More than three weeks after the wave churned over the city, its horror remains, lingering pungently in the air, over the streets and sidewalks, and in the minds and hearts of the people.

Called one of the worst natural disasters of the century, the Dec. 26 earthquake-fueled tsunami wreaked havoc across Indian Ocean coastal areas of 12 countries, stretching from Indonesia to northeastern Africa. Although the destruction was severe in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, it was worst in Indonesia, where 105,000 died on the island of Sumatra.

The wave hit with such force that large sections of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra’s northernmost tip, and other cities such as Meulaboh on the island’s southwestern side, were reduced to rubble instantly.

As the water moved inland, it became laden with large chunks of steel, concrete and wood from buildings and houses crushed along the way. The hell it left behind has been described as destruction on a biblical scale.

In sections closest to the shore, all that remains are the bold white mosques. Farther inland, where the buildings were not knocked down, black grime and ruins are everywhere: uprooted trees, broken furniture, mangled cars and bodies — some of them children.

Multiple mass graves have been dug, but in the 100-degree heat last week, the biting smell of decaying corpses still rose from the debris. Relief teams still were pulling bodies from the filmy piles of wreckage and placing them on median strips to wait for Indonesian troops, who would scoop them into long black bags for another mass grave.

Banda Aceh lost about 30,000 of its 150,000 residents. Those who survived are gripped with grief.

One young man, shopkeeper Memet Sallimuddin, said that when he saw the rush of water coming toward his home, he grabbed his wife and they ran upstairs holding onto each other, hoping desperately to be spared.

The wave was too powerful. It crushed their home and swept the couple into the twisting black stew.

“At first, we were rolling over and over,” Mr. Sallimuddin said.

But the water was slick like oil, and his wife soon slipped from his grasp.

Somehow, he still was breathing when the wave released him a mile and a half inland. Clearing his throat and mind, he frantically climbed the first tree he could find and scanned the scene below.

“I could see people dead all around,” Mr. Sallimuddin said, “but my wife was not there.”

Last Monday, Mr. Sallimuddin showed purple scars on his chest and described how he vomited black sand for days after the tsunami. He held back tears as he stood on the flat bed of concrete where he and his wife once made their home.

“Now she is gone,” he said, adding sadly, “Today, we would have been married two years.”

Nowhere to go

Nearly a half million people on Sumatra are homeless, say officials at a U.N. compound in downtown Banda Aceh. Thousands of the refugees are being flown to inland Indonesian cities, where the task of feeding and housing them will be more manageable.

Dozens of large canvas tent cities have sprouted. Some are disorganized and dirty, consisting of a few tarps or plastic sheets strung about in the mud. Eager to stem the spread of the makeshift camps, armed Indonesian soldiers have begun moving people to 27 officially recognized relocation centers.

Sadness hovers over the camps, and worry grips the faces of those living in them. With no money and only donated food to eat, most are waiting out the days unsure of their next move.

Names and photos of the missing, many young children, hang at camp entrances.

“Muhd Rafif Raditya, 21-months, from Banda Aceh,” was written under the photo of one child. Attached was a phone number and a note: “He likes to suck his thumb.”

Scramble to help

In the tsunami’s wake, the Sultan Iskandar Muda Air Force Base on the outskirts of Banda Aceh quickly emerged as the chaotic hub of one of the biggest and perhaps most internationally inclusive relief missions in history.

More than 100 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and more than a dozen foreign military contingencies, including elements from Australia, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Pakistan have flooded into the base.

The U.S. military has a major role, with the Air Force dropping off loads of goods, which are shifted to Navy helicopters and flown to destroyed areas. The helicopters often are met by ecstatic villagers, shoving each other in a rush for packages of supplies from fortified biscuits and rice to socks, soap and bottled water.

About 60 villagers swarmed a helicopter during one drop last week. With their hair blown by the wind from the helicopter’s rotors, young children jumped and danced in the distance. One boy, about 3 years old, swung his arms wildly over his head, apparently imitating the gigantic bird that had landed.

Makeshift medical care

Several foreign military teams also have set up emergency medical clinics, treating mass cases of dysentery and pneumonia, a disease common when a large amount of seawater is ingested. Military doctors from Australia and New Zealand opened a surgical ward last week in a tent outside Banda Aceh’s dilapidated central hospital, where 285 of the original 300 medical staff members are missing.

Indonesian soldiers cleaned inches-deep black mud and mangled equipment from the hospital’s hallways as the foreign medics hustled to perform miracles in the tent outside. Most of the surgeries have involved amputations of gangrene-infected limbs.

But the Australians told at least one hopeful tale of an Indonesian woman whose baby they had delivered by late-night Caesarean section in the tent. At first, the baby was nonresponsive and having trouble breathing. After a few tense moments of coaxing by medics, the baby came screaming to life.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Maj. Susan Taggart, who served as midwife during the delivery.

With hundreds of miles of roads and 40 bridges destroyed by the tsunami, the movement of food and clean water from the air base to the victims is easier said than done. Some of the foreign troops have arrived with engineering teams, backhoes and other heavy equipment.

Despite the progress, the scene at the air base is chaotic. Aside from a handful of Indonesian soldiers posted next to an unpaved road leading to the runway, there is little security. Refugees wander about, waiting to be loaded onto planes. At any given hour, as many as a dozen aircraft from separate militaries swirl overhead. Noise from propellers and jets mixes oddly with prayer calls from a small blue mosque about 100 feet from the airstrip.

A U.S. Navy helicopter crashed in a swamp near the base last week. There were no fatalities, but the helicopter was badly damaged. In an earlier incident, incoming aid was halted for hours after a cargo plane mowed down a water buffalo wandering across the runway.

Aid groups and military teams have erected more than 100 tents in the mud near the runway. Larger NGOs and military contingents say control over the base is in the hands of the Indonesians and that aid would cease or increase depending on what the government requested.

“The Indonesians are absolutely in charge of the airport,” said Air Force Col. Mark Schissler, who is orchestrating U.S. relief flights from a base in Thailand. “We’re flying in as many times a day as they will let us.”

The Air Force has its own tent buttressed against the runway, near a wet pile of unused goods flown in by other countries during the first frantic days of the relief effort. Working in such a unilateral fashion has required patience for the world’s most powerful military.

“There’s so many countries coming in here. We’ve just got to get everybody on the same sheet of music,” said one U.S. military official at the base.

Fighting history

Complicating the relief is Aceh’s tumultuous past. The Indonesian military engaged in on-again, off-again civil war against separatist rebels in the province since the mid-1970s. Although both sides vow to remain peaceful, fears linger that the tsunami will re-energize the conflict.

But the devastation is so great that most people appear consumed with matters other than civil war.

One Indonesian officer, Hary Sasmin, sat last week under a palm tree in the once-bustling port town of Lho’Kruengnaya . Smoking a cigarette and holding an AK-47 rifle in his lap, he said his job was to maintain a presence in the town as a handful of stone-faced survivors picked through what was left.

“People here are still afraid,” Officer Sasmin said. “The village is so destroyed that most people who survived are leaving.”

Battered blue and red fishing boats lay on their sides a half-mile from the shoreline, as a few people pulled salvageable items toward a main road. Others looked for remains of neighbors and loved ones. One local man said 2,000 were killed when the water rushed in, but Officer Sasmin said only 600 bodies had been recovered.

“Yesterday, eight more people were found,” he said. “This morning four more people. It’s getting less each day.”

The remains are brought to a small black-topped mosque, where they wait until there is a big enough pile for another mass grave.

Farther down the road, stoic-looking survivors trekked slowly up a hill, carrying metal scraps and other items peeled from the wreckage to higher ground, where a new town might be built.

Beside the road, on another hillside, local Muslim women were gathered to pray. One woman sat in the middle of the others, holding a baby toward the sky. The prayer was to Allah, asking for the child to be spared.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide