Smashed lives, unwanted toys -- and a honeymoon

When the tsunami came rolling in from the sea, everybody in the village ran. The men in the coffee shop knocked back their glasses and hurried towards the jungle. The women climbed up a hill and watched, crying and praying, as a tide of debris devoured their homes.

On the main road a young man jumped on to his scooter to escape.
He spotted a young woman by the side of the road, gave her a lift, and, as the wave carried them both off, they swam for it. Five days later the couple married in Nusa’s simple concrete mosque.

“They met for the first time in the tsunami,” the village’s imam, Syamsul Fuadi, said. “They were in the water and they helped each other. Now they are on their honeymoon.”

The disaster of nearly a month ago has touched the lives of Nusa’s inhabitants in many ways, not all of them predictable. The village, on the west coast of Aceh, the Indonesian province on the island of Sumatra devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, is about five kilometres from the sea.

The wave first flattened the neighbouring town of Lhokgna. It rolled into Nusa minutes later, destroying all the low-lying houses built between the village’s two small hills. It engulfed rice fields, washed over the old cemetery, but stopped short of the elevated volleyball court and the shop.

Descending from their hill, dazed and terrified, a few hours later, the villagers of Nusa found their world had been surreally rearranged. Much of the village had disappeared; unknown bodies floated on a carpet of mud and planking. An articulated truck lay in a field. Teams of young men rescued a few survivors, including an exhausted soldier clutching a child; others helped themselves to food inside fridges washed in by the flood.

Standing next to his damaged house, with its lopsided metal roof, the village’s deputy secretary, Abdul Kadir, on Wednesday reckoned up the destruction. “We have 163 houses in Nusa. Fifty-three of them have been completely flattened. Another 50 have suffered significant damage”.

Twenty-four villagers died, including 12 children who were out playing when the wave came. Six of the other victims were aged 16 to 40; the other six were over 40. “Nobody has become a complete orphan. But there are many children who have lost one parent,” he said.

The wave carried with it around 150 bodies. The dead, who had little to identify them, appeared to have come from Lampuuk, a fishing community just down the road. In the first days, the villagers buried 43 corpses, mostly women and children, in a mass grave at the bottom of a butterfly-filled lane. Later,they left the dead for collection on the edge of the village. (“After five days the authorities told us this is what we must do with them,” Kadir said.)

But as interest in the disaster recedes, like the unasked-for water itself, what of the living? The survivors who lost their homes are now sleeping in three different camps: one next to the village primary school, which is stacked with emergency provisions and no longer functioning; another beyond the waterlogged fields; and a third up in the jungle.

Ny’a Intan decided to stay in the jungle where she owns a sweet potato field. She and her family are living in a makeshift shelter near the village, in a sloping grove of coconut and banana trees.

Her 13-year-old granddaughter, Rahmianti, said: “Someone told us we had to run. Some people ran to the hills, others to the mosque. Afterwards my father went to see what had happened to our house. He came back and said, ‘There is nothing.’”

Her school in Lhokgna had been washed away, together with most of her classmates. “I don’t know what happened to my friends,” she said. “Only two of us survived. I want to go back to school so badly.”

Couldn’t she travel to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital 16km away? “Even if we sold all our sweet potatoes we would not have enough money for the bus fare,” she replied, sobbing.

Despite the huge global relief effort centred on Indonesia, the country that suffered the most from the tsunami—with more than 125 00 dead—it is hard to be confident that Rahmianti will find a new school in the next few months.

Many others like her find themselves stuck in a web of poverty and hopelessness. The Indonesian government has promised to rebuild settlements like Nusa. But it is not clear how long this will take, if it ever happens.

In the meantime, at least half of the locals are living in tents, including 30-year-old Sawiyah, whose husband Mohammad went to Banda Aceh in search of work on December 26 but never returned.

On Wednesday Sawiyah said she would like to live in a house again. She has two children: a son, four, and a daughter, two. “My son was crying as we were running from the wave. He kept saying, ‘Where is my father, where is my father?’ My daughter asks the same question before going to sleep.”

Some 70% of Nusa’s residents used to earn their living through farming. Rice, sweet potato and clove trees all grow here; further away, up in the cooler mountains, there is marijuana. The tsunami came just before the rice was supposed to have been harvested. Now the fields are full of saltwater and shards of glass; it will take three years for the land to recover, Kadir reckoned on Wednesday.

“We are still waiting for the elephants to come and pull out all the trucks,” he said.

The houses in the middle of Nusa have disappeared, apart from their concrete foundations, but others on slightly higher ground are only semi-wrecked. On Wednesday residents were hosing down furniture; others wandered among alleyways choked with mud, timbers and bricks.

So far, none of the big international aid agencies have arrived in Nusa, which is just off the devastated coast road between Banda Aceh and Lhokgna. Some aid has arrived from the Chinese and Japanese governments. The most practical relief, though, has come from Indonesia itself. Engineers were on Wednesday busy digging a new well after the old one was contaminated with seawater. Volunteer Indonesian doctors have also established a mobile medical clinic in the village twice a week.

One family has laid out a row of soft toys on their front wall, including a giant Winnie the Pooh. The bear had been sent from Malaysia, Haji Mohammad said, as a present for his four-year-old granddaughter Icha. But by the time it arrived Icha was missing, presumed dead, swept away with her parents and grandmother from their harbourside home in Banda Aceh.

“I searched for her for six days,” Mohammad said. “But I didn’t find her. I didn’t find my daughter either. “All I found was the family’s motorbike.”

What was Icha like? “She was funny and brave and smart,” her aunt Fida said.

A short walk away a mobile health clinic staffed by Indonesian volunteers was dispensing medicines. The villagers were suffering from various post-tsunami problems—gastroenteritis, pneumonia, respiratory complaints, anaemia, and iron deficiency, Husein Latif said. Nearby locals were giving out food supplies piled up in what used to be a classroom.

In the courtyard opposite dozens of people live in a giant khaki tent. Nearly a month on, nobody is starving in Nusa. But at the same time the community could do with more rice, Nazmudin, one of the volunteers, said.

“We also need underwear, sanitary towels, sandals, and diesel oil,” he added. Some emergency food supplies that had reached Nusa had passed their sell-by date. The Chinese beef had made people ill, Nazmudin complained, while the Japanese sausages had not proved popular.

So far, the electricity supply has not been restored. There is only one toilet—in the mosque—though Indonesian engineers had last week begun work on restoring the water supply and installing a new sanitation block.

As we leave, the village’s second wedding of the year is under way in the mosque. A group of male relatives are reciting prayers; the young bride, wearing a simple headscarf, seems happy enough; after the ceremony the groom grins and shakes our hands enthusiastically.

“It will take a long time to rebuild this place,” the imam, Fuadi, said, surveying the ruin of palm trees and bricks. He is right.

How disaster hit one village:

  • Nusa is a medium-sized village about 5km from the sea, on the devastated west coast of the Aceh province of Indonesia. It lies between Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, and Lhokgna, the site of a beach town that no longer exists

  • It has a population of around 1 300. About 250 families live in the village

  • The tsunami killed 24 villagers. Twelve of the victims were children; six were 16-40 and the other six were over 40. Most people escaped by running into the hills

  • The village had 163 houses. The tsunami flattened 53 of them, and caused significant damage to 50 others

  • After the wave villagers found 150 bodies floating in their fields. They buried 42 of them in a mass grave. They left the others at the side of the road for collection

  • Some 70% of the villagers earned their living from farming. Rice, cassava, cloves and sweet potatoes are all grown here. The government employed 20%, while 10% worked in other professions

  • The village has a mosque, a primary school, which is no longer functioning because most of the teachers are dead, a cafe, a shop and a volleyball court. But the villagers haven’t played volleyball since the tsunami. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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