Piecing together a new life

Along the coast of Indonesia, where the scale of disaster is almost incomprehensible, tiny steps lead toward an unfamiliar normality.

January 22, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LHOKNGA, Indonesia - The United States Navy helicopter ferrying jugs of water and bags of jasmine rice fluttered above this village on the western coast of Sumatra.

Down below, the Indian Ocean sparkled and the island's green volcanic peaks thrust up into the rain clouds. In between the mountains and the sea, a brownish smudge of toppled trees, crushed cars and rubble spread out for miles, as if leveled by a scythe.

It's at this height that the scale of the destruction from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami comes into focus and Indonesia's unfathomable death toll - which has now climbed to 166,320, according to the Indonesia Ministry of Health - becomes disturbingly comprehensible.

"You can see the concrete slabs of houses and all the roads, but the rest is all gone. It has completely disappeared: the structures and people," said Patrick Johns, director of emergency operations for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, who is overseeing relief efforts in Indonesia. "The only thing I can compare it to are images of Hiroshima during the war."

But if the magnitude of the wreckage caused by this giant wave can be best appreciated from the air, the first stirrings of life after this disaster are perhaps only visible now on the ground.

A recent tour of this one stretch of coastline revealed a strange, almost post-apocalyptic world inhabited by scavengers, mourners and dreamers rummaging for scrap metal, food, profits and memories. All were looking for some way to rebuild their lives after a disaster that revisits them daily in hunger, poverty, sadness and loss.

When the Navy helicopter touched down on the concrete foundation of a destroyed house, a swarm of men and boys emerged from the rubble. They rushed toward the helicopter's open door, guarding their eyes from the blowing dust while they grabbed the rice and water before scurrying away on waiting motorcycles and trucks about as quickly as they arrived.

Once, thousands of tourists

Situated 10 miles west of Banda Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, Lhoknga once drew thousands of weekend visitors to its long sandy beaches, vacation houses and restaurants serving some of the freshest catches around. It was home to a military base, rice and clove farms and a cement factory. There was even a golf course.

"Before the tsunami, this was an area for tourists," said Pendi, a 31-year-old security guard from Banda Aceh who was clearly amused at the thought as he surveyed what remained of this holiday spot.

Pendi and his wife, Mimi, 25, made weekly Sunday visits to Mimi's family, who lived just up the road from Lhoknga. The young couple and their 2-year-old son had planned to keep their promise on Dec. 26 to come for an afternoon at the beach and family meal.

But the earthquake and tsunami arrived before Mimi could, sweeping away her mother's and her sisters' homes, killing everyone inside.

They finally made their trip here on a recent afternoon. Stepping over concrete beams, shreds of clothing and other detritus, Mimi, her hair covered in a head scarf, counted her family losses on her fingers: Her mother, her two sisters, their husbands and their four children.

Nine dead, she said finally.

Her father, who was outside the home at the time of the tsunami, was the only member of the family who survived, carried by the ocean for more than a mile into a stand of palm trees.

Disturbing visit home

For the past three weeks, Mimi had been afraid to come back, uneasy about what she might see.

On a recent afternoon, the sun was bright, the sea calm and appealing. But the beaches were empty. No one dared step in for a swim. On shore, all that remained of the beaches and the restaurants and the beach villas was a field of broken concrete. The only building still standing was the village's battered black-domed mosque. The only signs of life were the tracks of a sea turtle and a pack of bony dogs.

Mimi had come to her family's village in search of something - a shred of clothing, a dinner plate, a book, anything, she said - to remember her mother and sisters.

After a futile search at a sister's home, she walked to her parents' house, where Pendi found his mother-in-law's foot-powered Singer sewing machine. He dusted it off and placed it on a concrete slab. Mimi stared at it and after a few moments placed her hand on the machine, as if touching a headstone.

Nearby, a band of ragged-looking men hoisted iron gates, metal water pumps and other scraps of metal into a blue truck they had rented for the day. They hoped to sell their find to scrap metal dealers in Banda Aceh.

With the local economy in tatters, a legion of beachcombers arrives at dawn to begin searching for bits of metal, cars, money, jewelry and other remnants that might turn a quick profit.

"We are looking for aluminum and iron. Anything to sell," said Yusnadi, a thin, tired-looking man in a sweaty shirt as he took a break from his search.

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