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Feisty Newspaper in Tsunami-hit Aceh Publishes Despite Staff Deaths, Destruction

  • Scott Bobb

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, hard-hit by last month's earthquake and tsunami, a feisty, independent newspaper continues to publish despite the destruction of its offices and printing presses and the death of one-fourth of its staff.

From two cramped rooms over a street-corner shop in Banda Aceh, a skeleton staff struggles to publish Aceh's sole independent newspaper, Serambi.

In one room, a half dozen members of the financial office try to keep the daily afloat financially. Next door, in the editorial department, reporters take turns writing their stories on the handful of computers salvaged from the disaster.

Serambi once was a thriving regional daily, with a circulation of 30,000 to 40,000 copies. It received numerous citations for maintaining its independence in the midst of a 30-year-old insurgency which has killed thousands of people and created a climate of fear and insecurity in the province.

However, the tsunami that struck Banda Aceh on December 26 nearly destroyed what years of government pressure and rebel harassment could not. The wall of water flooded the newspaper's headquarters and washed away everything on the ground floor. It even swept the heavy printing presses into the courtyard.

One of the surviving editors, Samsul Kahar, wipes his brow as he recalls that morning.

"When I saw the offices were destroyed, I just cried, in front of the office. But I told myself I can't feel like this forever. So I came back and tried to publish the newspaper again," he said.

Fifty two of the paper's 200 employees were dead. The others were traumatized by the loss of family and colleagues.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kahar pulled together about 60 staff members and within four days began publishing the paper again, using printing presses in Lhokseumawe, 250 kilometers away.

During the first week, the newspaper was handed out free to Banda Aceh's stunned and grief-stricken residents.

Most of its four (tabloid-size) pages were devoted to lists of the missing, camps of the homeless and centers where survivors could find help.

Another major mission was to dispel rumors swirling through the devastated city, for example, that more tsunamis were on the way.

There were also rumors that Indonesian troops being sent to help with relief efforts, were actually being sent to crush the separatist rebellion. Serambi reported that the troops, as well as the legions of disembarking aid workers, were there to help.

Editor Kahar says the tragedy has provided an opportunity for the government in Jakarta to improve its image among the Acehnese people.

"This is a very good time for the government to show the people that it wants to change, that it wants to be good [to them] and wants to make Aceh a good place like before," he said.

The newspaper has since expanded to eight pages per day and continues to report on the climbing death toll and escalating efforts to help the victims.

As before, there is also a daily (obituary) page that reports deaths in the community. Only now its pictures are mostly of young people, children, babies. Above each one a black headline reads: Death - Tsunami Disaster.

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