Friday 2 October 2009

Sumatra and Tsunami memories

It seems like a long time ago but when I open my computer bag I sometimes still catch the deathly stench that clung to our clothes and hair while we wandered through the ruins of Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, reporting on the huge Asian Tsunami.

The same island, Sumatra, was struck by a devastating earthquake on Wednesday and another, less disastrous quake on Thursday, and the international rescue effort is now beginning.

The cameras can't really convey the sense of hell on earth after a disaster like this. The very ground you walk on does not feel safe and it's hard to know where any kind of rescue can begin.

It took me nearly a week after the Christmas 2004 Tsunami struck to reach Banda Aceh, travelling via Sri Lanka which had also been badly affected. Here's an extract of the eyewitness account I filed for the Sunday Herald.

Aftermath at the end of the world.
Sunday Herald Sunday 9th Jan 2005

"THE outlines of empty eerie streets remain, but apart from that there is nothing to see through the shimmering air but rubble. It is an awesome panorama, unfolding over miles of what was Banda Aceh's shoreside district, Lilele.

As the eye adjusts to the sight, mangled shapes are discernible in the piles of brick and wood.There are cars, rolled like beach pebbles into the debris. Then the distorted features of furniture, rooms and everyday items become clear, their odd angles at first disguising their original purpose.

Finally, close in, the cause of the stench, the crooked human arms and legs of the dead make themselves known.Their hands wave out grotesquely from inside fallen buildings, as if still looking for a means of escape from the killer wave that struck 14 days ago.

Dragonflies hover overhead and the occasional lorry rumbles past, but apart from that there is just a horrifying silence. It feels as if you have come to the end of the world.

Small dots of people can be seen moving in and out of this apocalyptic landscape. Trucks ferrying soldiers shuttle along the dusty, cleared paths.Teams of volunteers, visible by their bright yellow gloves, can be seen engaged in the task of pulling the bodies out. Nobody will go back to living here for a long time to come.

A few former residents are salvaging what is left of their belongings.Mahmood Muktaka came to live here 24 years ago. He is leaving today with a pick-up truck filled with two, soaked muddy mattresses and a sideboard. He glances at a sports trophy, a past life, and drops it on the ground.

He is leaving most of his possessions and the memory of his wife and 19-year-old son who perished when the wave came.The house, in what was a police compound, is almost a mile and a half away from the sea. There are thousands of outlines of houses, tons of rubble, between here and the inaccessible shoreline.

The Indonesian government revised its estimate of the numbers killed in this province from 90,000 to 113,000 on Friday. The true figure will never be known.

A disaster like a tsunami or an earthquake does not discriminate and both hit this city in a short space of time on Boxing Day. In a famine the poor and the weak suffer first, and the rich actually get richer as desperate people off-load their assets cheaply to buy food. In life you can get impoverished and starve or go out of business and accept it, but when everything is ripped away from you in 40 seconds, it is almost impossible to cope with.

Muktaka tells me he is a policeman and he feels he must prove it. There is nothing left of the house to indicate his status or anything to show that this was a police compound, apart from a police truck lifted and smashed into the roof of the buildings behind.

He perseveres and succeeds in recovering his pressed but mud-stained police shirts with their printed name badges from a smashed wardrobe when a shout goes up. They have found another body hanging from the roof in one of the houses up the road. His friends try to insist that everyone has a look but Muktaka is not going anywhere until he confirms he has an identity. He sifts through the rubble to find some evidence that he did exist here before the wave came and robbed him of everything.

At regular intervals along the ruined streets are the wrapped packages of bloated human remains.They are bound up in clear or black plastic sheeting and then tied to lengths of salvaged planking for the convenience of their pall bearers. There is a shortage of body bags. Few are given the "dignity" of being loaded into a trailer encased in an orange, liquid retaining, grab-handled body bag.

They are buried, by the vanload, in a huge trench system on the way to the city airport where the stench is indescribable. Dealing with death is an important part of Muslim tradition and everyone here feels they cannot move forward until the dead are buried. From their experience of other disasters, the aid agencies know this too, hence the priority given to the task of bringing out the dead.

Volunteers from the Golongan Karya, Indonesia's largest political party, have flown in from Jakarta to form one of dozens of body-recovery teams operating in the city. "This is our first day of seven days and already this morning we have found seven bodies, " says 34-year-old Al Hafidh, the leader of a 20-strong team of bibbed volunteers, with something approaching pride. He manages to temper this with genuine empathy. "My own mother-in-law is lost, so I feel very sad when I see this, " he says. "When you come here you cannot think anything and you cannot say anything, but it is not just about the bodies. We have come to give them hope and to lift their spirits. We have to show them that life must go on."

Another five misshapen bundles of bodies are taken out and have been set by the edge of the road for collection like weekday rubbish. Then, in the shade of a ruined block, the Indonesian soldiers stop for lunch out of their mess tins. For once their masks are dropped as they smoke and chew.One of them practises his golf swing with a club he has found in the rubble."

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