At Indonesian city nearest epicenter, aid begins to arrive

Bodies being gathered up, but no one provides food

Asia Disaster

December 31, 2004|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MEULABOH, Indonesia - Four days after the killer tsunami swept away a large portion of this city of 30,000 people, aid is only beginning to arrive.

The death toll is unknown, but according to military estimates there are 4,000 bodies and 7,000 missing.

The quake and tsunami were known to have killed many in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and relief efforts had begun in greater earnest there.

But Meulaboh, the city closest to the quake's epicenter, was the question mark. For days after the disaster, no one could reach the city, even by helicopter.

On Thursday the first serious assistance began. Navy medics arrived. The army, which is in charge of security, organized a band of 30 volunteer civilians in T-shirts and baseball caps to comb the streets for the dead.

But there were still no aid workers to provide food.

Eddy Sutrisono, 43, who owns a ceramic tile shop in Meulaboh, said some supplies had been dropped by helicopters but were quickly snapped up. "It was like feeding dogs," he said. "It was first-come, first-served."

In Banda Aceh, a United Nations official was at the airport to coordinate the arrival of aid, and numerous cargo jets from other parts of Indonesia and from Singapore were landing to deliver goods.

But Meulaboh, which had no electricity or phone service, got scant attention. The lack of help was puzzling because the road from the south was passable, with some ingenuity.

A two-day trip by road found only a series of three knocked-out bridges preventing a clear shot to the city. Local residents jury-rigged rafts to get motorcycles and pedestrians across.

Survivors in Meulaboh said that after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck, the tsunami came as a deadly sucker punch.

Military personnel rushed downtown to deal with the quake, only to be washed away when the tsunami arrived.

Fishermen were amazed to see the sea recede 40 yards after the quake, and they ran into the seabed to collect fish, unaware that the receding water was a sign of the huge waves to come. When the tsunami struck, they, too, were swept away.

Three waves smashed into Meulaboh, inundating its downtown and destroying a suburban village. Fishing boats, tossed like toys, were deposited on the city's main road. Storefronts were punched in.

"The water came with the speed of an airplane," Sutrisono said. Most of his family was at home and survived, but his eldest son was away at breakfast and never returned. His family rushed up to the roof to save themselves.

Among the rubble on one side street lay the bodies of five adults, twisted and filthy, in pools of fetid water. In the middle of the street, the body of an infant was placed carefully on the top of a cardboard box. A few yards down was the body of a child placed on top of a door.

Elsewhere in the city, thousands of survivors clogged another street, walking or on bikes, attempting to get home, to leave the area or to get help.

Syaifuddin Abdulla said he lost his sister, her husband and other relatives in the destruction of the village of Lho Nga, seven miles from Banda Aceh:

"If you go there, bodies are still on the road. Any reported death toll would be understated. Whole families are missing. Who would report them?"

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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