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In Aiding Search for Bodies, Indonesian Hopes for Solace

Conservation Office Director Lost His Wife and Daughter

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page A24

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- "Go left! Left!" shouted Andi Basrul. Rachmat the elephant heaved forward, pulling a chain tight around his massive shoulders and hauling up a log from the ruins of a shattered house.

The twisted body of a woman appeared in the wreckage, a red shirt over her head, legs folded back at a cruel angle. Her mottled hand clutched a metal post, which she must have grasped when the black waves crashed into the house less than a mile from the sea.

Andi Basrul, in foreground, watches as Marni and Rachmat, elephants from wildlife preserves he oversees, help shift debris in Banda Aceh. Basrul brought in six of the animals to assist in the effort to find tsunami victims. (Photos Ellen Nakashima -- The Washington Post)

"Go on! Go on!" called Basrul, 46, the director of Aceh province's conservation office. The beast twisted away jagged wedges of tile-topped brick, further uncovering the body.

Basrul has been involved in the recovery effort every day since the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 115,000 people in Indonesia. He said the work is a form of therapy, because he lost his wife, Martini, and daughter, Gabby, 11, in the disaster.

"Yes, it's difficult," he said. "But if my own family can't be found, perhaps by finding other people's bodies, that will help me through."

Basrul has brought in six elephants from wildlife reserves he oversees because, he says, they are more practical than earthmovers and bulldozers in searching for remains. "Elephants are smart," he said, and their dexterous trunks can lift debris without unduly disturbing a corpse.

Officials say about 75,500 bodies have been recovered in Aceh, on northern Sumatra island. Some people might never be found, and the odds of finding all the dead decrease each day as the bodies decompose in the punishing tropical sun and torrential rains.

"What can I say?" asked Basrul, a rotund man missing some of his front teeth, pausing Thursday as he directed the men handling the elephants.

At first, Basrul searched for his wife among the ruins, but he stopped after a few days.

"I just had a feeling at that time that my wife still somehow had survived, that I'd find her alive," he said. "But then after three days, somehow, I'm not sure if I was dreaming or awake, I had a feeling that she came to me. She wore clean clothes, and she looked at me, and then she looked away, and then she left me."

It was a sign, he said, that she was dead. He kicked through rubble as he spoke. "I was feeling sad and very touched, but I thanked God that He had given me that sign."

But Basrul's son, Kiki, 21, is still looking for his mother and sister. He goes to every hospital morgue, every relief camp. It has been three weeks, and "there are still plenty of places" to search, Kiki said. He wants to look now in smaller refugee camps, "even those with four families."

His father does not try to stop him.

Basrul wanders in a vast wasteland of mud, water and detritus. This was his neighborhood, now strewn with memories: a mangled child's bicycle, an overturned Butterfly sewing machine, a canvas backpack with a waterlogged Koran.

As he walked, occasionally taking a puff from a cigarette, he motioned to the sea, toward the direction of his demolished house. He stopped several times, at one point spotting a pair of corduroy pants in the muck -- his own, he said, swept hundreds of yards from his home. He shook the pants out and tossed them onto a log and a cement slab. In flip-flops, he traversed fallen coconut tree trunks and slabs of corrugated metal.

Not far from the woman's corpse, another team of elephants was trying to excavate a body from a heap of rubble in what had been a house. Basrul watched as an elephant named Marni arced her trunk and plucked a section of wooden house frame from a pile of bricks that had collapsed on the corpse, a shirtless man lying on his stomach.

"Move to the right!" Basrul ordered. The man atop the elephant guided the pachyderm to the right.

For four hours, Basrul was mostly on the move, directing the elephants, picking up and tossing away debris, patting one elephant's trunk, feeding a piece of coconut to another, inspecting corpses.

"That's the main point for me," he said. "If I have something to do, I will forget the pain temporarily. Because the grief is there."

It comes in waves, "when I'm alone, when everyone is sleeping, in the middle of the night." He finally sleeps at 3 a.m., holding tight to Gabby's orange drum majorette costume and baton, which he found in some wreckage.

He said he is happiest when he is awake, "when I can surrender myself to God." Then, he said, he feels that he can move on.

"But sometimes, when things are not right, and Satan possesses my mind, I cannot help but think, why did God take my daughter? She deserves to live more than me. She's still young. I still want to be close to her. Why did this happen?"

When the wave hit, Basrul was out of town for work. Kiki was with his mother and sister and carrying his own 2-year-old son. When he tried to reach out for Gabby's hand, his mother shouted, "No, run! Save yourself and your son."

"Kiki's feeling regret because he didn't save his sister," Basrul said.

For two days after the tragedy, he said, Kiki avoided him, afraid he would be angry. "He asked for my forgiveness for not saving Gabby and his mother," Basrul said. "I said, 'No, you're not to blame.' "

He was interrupted by the excavation crew retrieving the body of the shirtless man.

"Plastic!" Basrul called, ordering up more sheeting.

Unlike his men, he wears no surgical mask, no plastic gloves, no boots. "I cannot smell anything, frankly," he said. "I'm numb."

Rescuers deposit the bodies directly into a mass grave, without identifying them or taking snapshots, a practice that is sure to add to the already considerable confusion surrounding the numbers of dead and missing in Indonesia. But Basrul said he believes that burying the dead as soon as possible is better than letting them rot in the sun.

When he had finished his work for the day, he rested under a shade tree near an office he had set up while his own, which was damaged, was being cleaned. Kiki sat near him.

Basrul said there was enough work clearing bodies to keep him busy for two more months. Tomorrow, father and son both will search again.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company