Accessibility links

Aid Reaching Tsunami Survivors in Indonesia 3 Weeks After Disaster, Bodies Still Being Found

It has been three weeks since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed more than 100,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh Province. Recovery efforts are progressing. But in the Uhle Lheu neighborhood of Banda Aceh, relief workers are just beginning to clear debris, and they are still retrieving hundreds of bodies each day.

It is mid morning in the Uhle Lheu suburb of Banda Aceh, a spit of land that stretches west from the city center out along the coast. The mostly residential neighborhood was flattened last month by the earthquake and tsunami, which cut a swath of destruction several kilometers deep through the area. A few solitary houses still stand but there are no trees. Mostly, only the foundations remain of a once thriving suburb.

The debris - wooden boards, bits of furniture, soggy mattresses and pillows - rises two meters high in some places. It spreads like a vast trash dump as far as the eye can see.

The main road into the area was only recently cleared. Workers using heavy equipment are now removing crashed cars and trucks from the along the strip.

An industrial crane carefully lifts a smashed dump truck out of the mud and swings it onto a wrecker.

Amnul, a 40 year-old foreman with a private construction company, is supervising the operation. He says in the past five days, his crew has removed 50 such vehicles from the mud.

Amnul says he cannot find words to express how sad he feels about this work. He says it will take months to clear the area.

Up the road, a group of about 40 volunteers from a youth group in central Aceh Province is searching for bodies in the ruins of what once was a small shopping center. Their leader, a wiry man named Suhardi, says his crew this morning has already retrieved 200 bodies.

Mr. Suhardo says he feels deeply for the people here. They need help, he says, and we have to help each other. It is God's will.

A bit further, several young men are loading battered hospital equipment onto a truck under the supervision of a portly older man.

Dr. Marzuki is salvaging what he can from the shell of his hospital, the Permata Hati. He says he survived because he was in Jakarta on business when the tsunami struck. But his three daughters and son -- who were working that morning - were killed along with 10 staff members and 17 patients.

Ten years to build the hospital, he says, and in one day, it is all gone.

Dr. Marzuki says he will store what equipment he can salvage and then look for some bank loans to reopen the hospital. Waving his hands above his head, he tells everyone he will return to Uhle Lheu.

"Yeah, I'll come back here. I'll (be) working here again. I'm sure," he said.

Engineers estimate it will take up to three months to clear the rubble of Uhle Lheu and recover all the bodies.

More than 70,000 bodies have been recovered so far. After three weeks in the muck, they are unrecognizable. Most of them are being buried in a mass graveyard on the airport road leading out of town.

Thousands of relief workers, including troops from several foreign nations, are struggling to set up a pipeline of food and emergency supplies to sustain the estimated one million homeless. They expect they will need help for at least six months, until they can find new homes and rebuild their lives.

The survivors from Uhle Lheu think of rebuilding also. But for them, and the volunteers who are helping them, the future has been postponed until they finish clearing what is left of the past.