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The Good Life, Washed Away

Family Well Off Before Tsunami Celebrates Holiday on Charity

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A15

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 22 -- Edy parked his motorbike and pressed into the crowd beside the local mosque Saturday afternoon, clutching a white coupon in his right hand. He squeezed under a blue awning where tsunami refugees and other indigent survivors were claiming plastic bags with donated chunks of meat to celebrate one of Islam's most important holidays.

"Not here, over there," one volunteer told Edy, 21, a skinny college student with a knitted Muslim skullcap on his closely cropped head and the shadow of his first mustache on his upper lip.

Edy, right, who had to flee his village after the tsunami, asks where he can redeem his meat coupon. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

He turned away, still holding the coupon that entitled his family to a handout of recently butchered meat for the festival meal. It was a ticket to the comfortable lifestyle they took for granted before the Dec. 26 tsunami obliterated their village on Aceh's battered west coast, robbing them of their riches and landing them on the dole.

"Wrong place," another volunteer said. "This isn't for the meat at this mosque."

Edy scowled, staring down at the coupon, and buzzed off on his motorbike.

No holiday in the Muslim province of Aceh is as anticipated as the three-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which began Friday. For generations, Edy's family marked the occasion by purchasing a water buffalo for ritual slaughter and sharing the meat with 100 poor families in their village, in the town of Lamno on the west coast, said Edy's mother, Cut Manyak.

The buffalo could cost $800. But the family ran a small shop from the front of their wood-plank home, selling staples such as sugar and salt, as well as gasoline and spare tires. By the standards of Meunasah Rayeuk village, they were affluent.

The tsunami, triggered by a massive earthquake off the coast, razed their home to its foundation and wiped out any sign of their shop. Manyak's two younger sisters died, as did a majority of the 850 people in the village.

"I lost everything," said Manyak, 60, a plump, matronly woman with reddened eyes behind thick glasses. Wrapped in a long, white veil, she rested her wrinkled hands in her lap, rubbing her fingers together anxiously. Faded orange polish was visible on several nails.

She and her husband had been visiting their married daughter, Siti Maryam, 28, in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, when the tsunami struck. Half the city was devastated, but Maryam's home was spared. So were all seven of Manyak's children. For a while she thought that her youngest, Aris, 13, a shy boy with lively, chestnut eyes, had perished, but he appeared at the front door two weeks after the tsunami. He had survived by fleeing to the hills and climbing a palm tree.

"I cried so hard when I saw him," Manyak said. "I couldn't say anything. I just prayed to God. I kissed him and held him tight and never wanted to release him again."

Now, Manyak, her elderly husband and most of their children have crammed into the modest clapboard dwelling occupied by Maryam's family.

"I have no money. I have nothing with me. We're refugees now," Manyak said shortly before she dispatched Edy to the mosque. "I don't know whether we'll be having meat this year."

Maryam interjected, "Maybe this year, because the rich people lost everything, there won't be anyone to slaughter a cow and give the meat to the poor. Now, the rich and the poor are equal."

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