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In Indonesia, survivors & aid workers mourn the dead, focus on the needs of the living

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (BP)–Minutes after feeling the earthquake Dec. 26, Ibu Tetty was in her house in the small village of Desa Nusa, about 10 kilometers from the coast in Indonesia’s Aceh province.

She was giving thanks that her home was still standing.

“But then I saw the people running up the hill,” she says, pointing at the slope rising nearby. “’Why are you running?’ I asked them. “They were screaming, ‘Water! Water! Run!’ There was no time to get anything from the house.”

The frightened villagers climbed on top of homes at the top of the hill. “When the water came, it was rolling and rolling,” Tetty recalls, spinning her hands frantically. “’Oh, dear God!’ I was crying. People were screaming and crying, ‘Forgive us, God! Have mercy on us, God!’”

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With tears in her eyes, she looks toward the ocean. “Alhamdulillah [thanks be to Allah], all of my family is OK.”

The view from the ridge that saved Tetty’s life -– and the lives of her husband and six children -– will never be the same. Framed by low mountains in the distance, the vista looking to the sea is one of complete desolation.

STUNNED SILENCE

Similar scenes greet aid workers arriving in Banda Aceh, the devastated provincial capital. Once a city of more than 200,000, an accurate count of the dead there may never be known. In the wreckage of what was once a bustling port city, people walk through rubble in stunned silence.

Mixed into the debris are hundreds of bodies that may never be recovered. There are simply not enough people to dig out the remains.

“It’s like a huge fist first smashed down hard on the whole area, and then a huge hand stirred it all up,” said one aid worker, struggling to find words. Throughout the city, huge buses, trucks and boats lie mangled and tossed about like toys. Shattered fishing boats lie in obscure resting places -– atop bridges, along streets nowhere near water.

Nearly two weeks have passed since the Dec. 26 earthquake shook this city on the northern tip of Sumatra. The testament of its force remains: toppled minarets once reaching proudly to the sky, buildings collapsed on their foundations, deep cracks opened in the earth. But it was the ocean off the once-beautiful Sumatran coastline that destroyed the city — and still strikes fear in those who lived through the tsunami.

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Like many survivors, Mr. Yusmanto escaped death only because he works outside Aceh. He doesn’t understand why his house wasn’t leveled in the tsunami. Still, having a frame of a house left doesn’t make him lucky. Everyone else in his family is dead.

“Whatever they say the death toll is, in reality it is higher,” he said. Sweeping an arm out to the rubble of his community, Yusmanto estimates as many as 30,000 died in the immediate area.

Intermittent stacks of corpses enclosed in body bags line the road near his home. According to Yusmanto, many bodies recovered are pulled out by family members. But with entire families dead, “most bodies will stay here, because there is no one else to do it,” he says.

All along the western coast of Aceh province, reports on the devastation continue to broaden the extent of the damage. Traveling by vehicle along the coast is impossible as dozens of bridges are gone.

Six hours south of Banda Aceh, the coastal town of Meulaboh — population 40,000 — has few survivors, early observers say.

“Between Meulaboh and Banda Aceh are many, many smaller coastal fishing villages and towns,” says “Antonio,” a Baptist worker assessing the needs in Aceh. “If Banda Aceh and Meulaboh are that completely destroyed, there’s no doubt everything in between is also gone.”

According to Antonio, conservative estimates say half the population of the city of Banda Aceh have been killed.

“After what we’ve seen, that really seems to be conservative,” he says. “But it’s not just here. It keeps going. It’s everywhere. The devastation doesn’t stop. I can’t imagine how long it would be before anyone will feel good about settling back in some of these places. They will, but it will always be with the fear of more tsunamis.”

FOCUSING ON THE LIVING

As people around the world continue to be inundated with images of the destruction, it’s time to shift focus, says “Pat Julian” (name changed for security reasons), who coordinates Southern Baptist disaster relief in Asia.

“We need to get past the death toll and get focused on the living -– because that’s where our ministry is going to be,” Julian says.

In Aceh, the area hit hardest by the tsunami, reconstruction will take years. As volunteers begin to arrive, Julian believes selfless acts of service will make the greatest impact.

“We need doctors and nurses and people with specific fields of expertise,” he says. “But we need a lot more people who will do dirty work. It will be harder than you can imagine. There are so many needs –- giving food and water to other volunteers; setting up water filtration systems; carrying sacks of rice; digging out debris and bagging badly decomposed corpses.”

As one with established relationships with the people, Antonio says relief and aid delivered with humility and cultural sensitivity will have major impact.

“We’ve got an opportunity to reshape the people’s perception of Christianity,” he says. “They’ve got us categorized in just one box [together with all Westerners]…. We can reshape that.”
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* “Alan Brant” is a Christian correspondent based in Asia. His name has been changed for security reasons.