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Acehnese Try to Build a Life on Shattered Dreams

Within days after the killer tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra, VOA Correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins traveled to Aceh Province in the tragic aftermath. A veteran of wars and disasters, she says she has never seen such utter destruction and tells us about her experience and the terrible reality for tens of thousands of Acehnese people who lost their loved ones, their hopes, and their dreams in an instant.

There are not enough tears in the world to cleanse the sorrow that flows over Aceh.

Less than a week after the tsunami struck December 26, nearly every house and every business had been destroyed in Indonesia's provisional capital, Banda Aceh. It was a scene of utter devastation - like nothing most of us, including world leaders and wartime generals, had ever seen.

But that is nothing compared to the personal losses. Ambri, who lost his wife and 2-year-old child, was desolate. He had tried to save his family when the tsunami struck, but the water was too powerful, and they were sucked out to sea.

"I will just pray to God now. I have nothing left, nothing. I am alone," he said.

Ambri is just one of millions across the Indian Ocean with a tragic story. It was impossible to walk what was passing for streets, without facing crying people, dazed faces, the blank looks of shock.

Then there was what became known as "the bridge of death." Washed up on this bridge were three very large boats, but it was what was beneath it that gave it its name.

From a distance, it looked like support railings broken and splintered into scores of fragmented pieces of wood fermenting in stagnant water. But it is only when closer, that you realized the splinters were hundreds of dead bodies. And many of the dazed faces I had seen on the streets, also gathered here searching the lifeless pile for someone they loved.

But the people of Aceh - devoutly religious - struggled to carry-on despite their personal horror. They re-opened cafes and shops - robots getting on with life's daily work. Quickly, polite banter dissolved into tears and more stories of how many family members, especially the children, had been killed or missing.

I could see they were testing it out. By speaking of their nightmare they might make it real or try to begin to accept what had happened.

The most compelling single story took place near the Indonesian Red Cross refugee camp on the devastated west coast. A group of us chanced upon a very old woman in the woods. She had been at the store when the tsunami struck. All her five children and their children did not survive. She had come to the woods to lie down and wait for death, the only thing she said she could look forward to. The Red Cross volunteers took her away to give her treatment, as comfort was not remotely possible.

But accompanying the utter personal desolation was a spirit of determination among the Acehnese, to not only survive, but to help others just like themselves.

Before international aid and workers arrived, the traumatized victims had to help themselves.

I met an Acehnese doctor, Hanifa Ali, who had lost 20 members of his extended family. Along with a dozen volunteers, including his 14-year-old son and doctor daughter, he traveled the length and breadth of Aceh, looking for survivors who needed help.

"Every day we must go here to protect these children. To know his [their] health, conditions, living conditions," he said.

And even as these volunteers tended to the sick and wounded, everyone worried about the future.

"We have no school building, we have no book, we have no nothing, we have no nothing. And how to get it? I don't know," he added.

It is hoped the world will never again witness a natural disaster of this proportion. But nature is unpredictable, like life itself.

For the Acehnese, family and community is the cornerstone of life. And in the months and years ahead, this foundation should serve to heal the lives that have been torn apart.