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Corpse Collectors Work to Bury Victims in Aceh

In Banda Aceh, efforts have been stepped up to find and bury the thousands of corpses still trapped beneath the rubble left by the December 26 tsunami that destroyed large swathes of the city. Young volunteers from all over Indonesia have been tasked with this grim duty.

Covered from head to foot in a blue uniform and gloves, 25-year-old Adje Tinero Hadjo throws another corpse into a truck before removing his protective mask and sitting down to take a cigarette break.

In an average day, Mr. Adje, along with dozens of other volunteers from the Indonesian Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Indonesian military, will collect around 3,000 bodies. These are victims of the December 26 earthquake and tsunami that laid waste communities across Indonesia's Aceh Province.

The work is grueling, they search beneath collapsed buildings and rubble, using picks and shovels to find bodies still buried nearly three weeks after the disaster.

Although most people would find this work horrifying, Mr. Adje is philosophical. He says he came to Aceh to help and feels proud that he is doing just that.

He says the work is hard. Each team works nine-hour shifts, so his day can go past midnight. But he says he has a sense of contributing to Aceh, a feeling of really helping people here, and that is the reason he came.

Mr. Adje says that in the first chaotic days after the disaster, he and his teammates collected bodies without gloves or masks. They simply took antibiotics in the hope they would provide protection from disease.

Once the truck is loaded up with corpses, the team drives to a vast burial site, where thousands of dead have already been buried without ceremony, without any attempts at identification.

Because so many people died when the tsunami struck Aceh, more than 100,000, the civil government collapsed, most officials were either dead or looking for missing family members.

Survivors took it upon themselves to bury the thousands of corpses littering the streets, trapped beneath buildings and clogging the canals.

Mr. Adje says before the disaster, he never imagined doing this kind of work. He says he would have been afraid, but not now.

He says he has no fear, he knows the dead are shells, vessels for once living spirits. He says he feels good to be with his team, good to know they are helping Aceh. This is why he has no fear.

The Indonesian government says so far, more than 75,000 bodies have been collected and buried, but workers are stepping up to retrieve the remaining corpses, so that the real task of rebuilding of Aceh can move ahead.