Dispatch From Banda Aceh

The incredible generosity of the tsunami’s survivors.

Villagers wearing surgical masks rummage through debris
Villagers wearing surgical masks rummage through debris

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Yusmadi Sulaiman sat cross-legged on the drab concrete floor, taking another drag from his cigarette. With the electricity still out in much of Banda Aceh, in the northwest tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, the faint light of a candle illuminated his tears as he told how the giant wave of the tsunami—a word Sulaiman had never even heard a few days earlier—had reached out and swallowed his family whole like some nightmarish scene from a Hollywood movie.

One moment, Sulaiman told me, his 4-year-old son was clutched in his arms as father and son clung to a coconut tree. The next moment, the boy was gone. Sulaiman heard his wife calling out to him a few feet away, as she held on to their 8-year-old daughter.

“Hold me, Bang, hold me,” the wife cried, using the Indonesian term of reverence for a spouse. Soon enough, she and her daughter were gone, too, washed away in the flood that some of the locals came to know scornfully as “Black Sunday.”

Shops and homes are reduced to rubble and debris
Shops and homes are reduced to rubble and debris

It was three days after the Dec. 26 tsunami when Sulaiman and I first spoke. A spry, youthful-looking man of 60 who drives a delivery truck for a local food company, Sulaiman had been searching for days for his wife and four children in the streets and alleys of his hardscrabble village, streets now lined with bodies and rubble, and he would keep looking for days after that. He would not find them.

Yet even amid such overwhelming tragedy, Sulaiman and many other survivors with whom I spoke in the days after the tsunami carried an air of hope and of optimism. They talked of rebuilding, and they displayed a generosity that was unmistakable. Sulaiman exhibited that spirit when he overheard that my translator and I were looking to reach an area of devastation some miles away. “Let me drive you,” he interjected. “No, no—that’s not necessary,” I told him.

“Please, let him,” said his employer, a Jakarta businessman named Yusi Pura who had ventured up to Banda Aceh to see if Sulaiman and other employees were still alive. “He wants to help. It would make him feel better. Please.”

It was only by fluke that I was even in Indonesia. Visiting friends in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, I was on a tiny motorboat that Sunday morning en route to Krakatoa—a volcano that, coincidentally or not, set off one of the last major tsunamis in 1883 when it erupted and killed 40,000 people. Our boat was rocked by swells so strong that we were drenched in seawater and left grabbing for the life preservers; it was not the casual Sunday boat ride we’d expected, to be sure, but we had no idea until many hours later, after an exhausting jaunt to the top of the still-smoldering volcano, that we had just survived a major calamity centered immediately to our north.

Even some eight hours later, after we saw the first CNN crawl about a strong earthquake, the damage appeared to be focused in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and we had no idea of the enormity of the event. Indeed, the Indonesians themselves would not realize for several days just how badly they had been hit—until they began to receive reports of tens of thousands of dead in tough-to-reach coastal regions south of Banda Aceh.

Two bodies sit in a canal days after the tsunami
Two bodies sit in a canal days after the tsunami

Soon enough, it became clear just how big a story this was—a human drama far removed from the staid press conferences and congressional hearings that I normally cover for the New York Times in Washington, D.C. Starting my reporting in Jakarta, I was in the office of Mike Elmquist, the disaster coordinator for the United Nations in Indonesia, when he received an alarming report: An employee in the region said as many as 40,000 people might be dead in the town of Meulaboh, several hundred miles to the south of Banda Aceh. The report couldn’t be confirmed, he said, but if it was true. … His voice trailed off. Within days, as authorities reached Meulaboh by boat, air, and land, it became clear that the number might well be even higher.

I was able to get a commercial flight up to Banda Aceh, surrounded by Jakarta residents packing boxes of water, noodles, and Dunkin’ Donuts for friends and relatives. Some travelers bribed airline ticket agents to get on the jammed flight.

Yusi, the Jakarta businessman who had gone looking for his employees in Banda Aceh, quickly befriended my translator and me on the plane ride up and insisted that we stay with him at the undamaged house his company occupied just blocks outside the zone of devastation. While dozens of newly arrived Western reporters slept side-by-side on the floor of a makeshift media center a few blocks away, I may have been the only journalist in Banda Aceh lucky enough to get my own room, sparse as it was. More important, he and his employees quickly offered me a tour of what was left of the local town, pointing out landmarks that were no longer standing.

The devastation was remarkable. The unclaimed bodies of men, women, and children, bloated and bloodied, dotted the streets and riverbeds. Row upon row of shops and homes sat in rubble for miles, one building indistinguishable from the next. A three-story government finance building was flattened like a pancake. Vending carts were snapped like twigs. Brightly colored fishing boats lay capsized in the streets, hundreds of yards from the shoreline.

A coastal town 5 miles south of the heart of Banda Aceh, almost a week after the tsunami
A coastal town 5 miles south of the heart of Banda Aceh, almost a week after the tsunami

Perhaps most powerful was the putrid stench of death and decay that was everywhere, forcing survivors to don surgical masks to ward off the odor as they walked the streets. At one mass graveyard near the airport on the outskirts of the city, home to some 6,000 bodies and counting, the stink was overpowering.

Before arriving, I had heard a lot about the ardent anti-American views held by many in the Aceh region, particularly here in an area where Muslim separatists had been waging civil war for decades. I was prepared for that hostility, but it never materialized. What I was not prepared for, as I roamed the streets of the ravaged region, was the site of countless villagers left homeless and hungry who were nonetheless offering Western relief workers, journalists, and soldiers a place to sleep, a bottle of water, or a plate of fresh noodles.

We inevitably offered them money for their kindness. Almost no one would take it. Even a villager who offered to take me for a ride down the coast on his motorcycle and “show me where the bodies are” (he made good on his promise in unforgettably grim fashion) refused to accept any money for gasoline, which was in very short supply.

All that the locals wanted, it seemed, was for the world to know what was happening in their remote island region. “Tell your President Bush we need help,” implored one young woman at a refugee camp, as she gave me a list of painkillers, laxatives, and other needed medical supplies to forward to the U.S. authorities.

Saifuddin Abdurrahman, a leader of a local mosque in Banda Aceh, had helped set up a refugee camp on its grounds. As I toured the place, survivors told me the Indonesian government had let them down, so religious leaders had to step in and do what they could. A thousand survivors made do with two toilets among them, and they cooked vegetable soup for themselves in an oversized kettle over an open fire. Across an alley, bloody gauzes lay strewn on the ground at what amounted to a makeshift infirmary for the wounded survivors, and a wooden bench served as an operating table.

The night before I visited the infirmary, one man had died of an infection from wounds suffered in the tsunami. The doctor, a young Muslim woman who had been trying to catch a nap when I arrived, explained that she had no antibiotics with which to treat the man and, worse yet, no way to get him to a local hospital. “We need help, a lot of help,” she said.

Abdurrahman did what he could. After one employee at the mosque lost his wife, a son, and his home to the tsunami and was unable to walk from his own wounds, Abdurrahman brought the man back to his home in what by local standards is a posh section of Banda Aceh. The man lay sprawled on a mattress in Abdurrahman’s living room, his daughter tending to his wounds.

“I don’t have the power to do anything,” the man said. “I just pray to Allah. There is nothing else to do.”