`Devastation and death beyond belief' in Indonesia

While corpses pile up, relief agencies struggle to prevent epidemics

December 29, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LHOKSEUMAWE, Indonesia -- Mulyana, a 24-year-old housewife, had just sat down to a wedding party Sunday morning when the tsunami struck. She ran and held onto a coconut tree. Still, the water dragged her far out to sea.

"I was alone in the middle of the ocean," Mulyana said yesterday from her hospital bed in this town on the northeastern coast of Aceh province, the area of Indonesia hit hardest by the disaster. "I was afraid of being pulled all the way to India."

Mulyana, who cannot swim, said she clung to a coconut tree floating nearby. With the weight of her clothes pulling her down, she ripped off everything but her bra and prayed to God to help her.

Four hours later fishermen found her still alive as they were pulling bodies from the water.

Each morning's tide brings with it the bodies of more victims who, like Mulyana, were washed out to sea, but who were not so lucky. Others have been found tangled in branches of trees where the waters hurled them.

Mulyana is one of more than 200 survivors filling hospitals here, many with similarly harrowing tales of how they survived a tempest that Indonesian and international relief officials fear might have killed more than 27,000 people in this country alone.

"We're seeing devastation and death beyond belief," said Michael Elmquist, who leads the U.N. assistance arm in Indonesia, speaking in an interview in his office in Jakarta. "I've been through many disasters around the world, but I've never seen anything like this. There's really nothing to compare it to."

While relief workers rushed yesterday to get food and medical supplies to the survivors to stave off starvation and disease, Indonesian officials said 4,775 people had been confirmed dead in North Sumatra, where Aceh is located, near the epicenter of the quake. Local officials were preparing makeshift graves even as unclaimed bodies remained on streets and shorelines.

The U.N. office in Jakarta received an unconfirmed report late yesterday that as many as 40,000 people had perished in the town of Meulaboh on Sumatra's western shore.

"If that is true," Elmquist said, "that's going way beyond any of our initial estimates."

Some officials said they fear that many more people also drowned in a remote set of smaller Indonesian islands off Sumatra, including the island of Nias. But officials emphasized that for now it was difficult to assess the full devastation.

"Those islands are really the dark side of the moon in terms of communications, and we really have no idea what's going on there," said Herbie Smith, head of the disaster response team for the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. "The devastation may be even worse than we know, and that's the tragedy here."

In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, reports are filtering in of thousands of bodies, some lined up outside a city mosque, others being carried away in army trucks.

The U.S. Consulate in Medan, more than 200 miles south along the eastern coast, received reports that the waters around Banda Aceh had swirled as far as 10 miles inland. Tadepalli Murty, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada who has modeled the potential of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, estimated that the waves that hit Banda Aceh could have been nearly 50 feet high.

The waves were reported to have inundated one city hospital, drowning patients inside.

Local television stations broadcast images from Banda Aceh that showed a city drenched with mud and debris, with bodies lying in the street or wedged among the debris. Where the bodies have been lined up, anxious survivors peer under makeshift shrouds in search of relatives.

Relief workers say the next few days will be crucial in determining whether there is a second wave of deaths among survivors who have been left stranded in the open. Many huddled under makeshift shelters and rationed food and gas to brace for the days ahead. Officials worried that an outbreak of disease could spread quickly.

"The situation is really critical right now, because the distribution system here for food and medicine has just really collapsed," Elmquist said. "The logistics and communications problems are just overwhelming for us, and if we don't quickly establish food and water supply systems, people will be in extreme danger."

With three of its own workers in the region still missing, the United Nations planned today to send a relief plane with 12 tons of food and medical supplies to Sumatra.

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