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For Men of Seaside Village, Lonely and Unfamiliar Roles

Tsunami Took Heavier Toll on Aceh's Women

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page A01

LAMTEUNGOH, Indonesia -- Baharuddin, the head of this devastated Sumatran fishing village, gently lifted the limp remains of his 11-year-old daughter, swaddled in a plaid sarong.

"She was my youngest daughter," he said, gazing down mournfully and tenderly at the remains. "She was the most beautiful one."

Marwadi, religious leader of the Indonesian village of Lamteungoh, destroyed by the tsunami, leads a prayer at the site of their mosque. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Tsunami Survivors Rebuild: Residents from the small town of Lamteungoh struggle to rebuild while coping with loss.

He placed her in a communal grave not far from the sea, where a wall of black water crashed ashore last month and killed his wife and their five children. Baharuddin and two other villagers laid two other bodies in the grave and shoveled soil on top.

Then he and nine other men crouched under the searing sun, hands outstretched, palms turned up, and prayed.

When the tsunami inundated the northern and western coasts of Indonesia's Aceh province, killing more than 100,000 people, most of the victims in seaside villages like this one were women and children. Three out of four of the survivors in relief camps are men or boys, according to U.N. officials.

Many in these coastal towns were fishermen who survived at sea or farmers in the hills above the high water line. But their wives and children were killed at home not far from the beach when the driving waves turned the village into ruins on Dec. 26.

In Lamteungoh, there are 105 widowers and only 19 widows. These rugged men are now grappling with unfamiliar roles, dependent on one another and uncertain about what comes next. With their families gone, some say their lives have lost purpose. They are caring for children in communal style and tending to the injured. They are struggling to move through their grief and reclaim their future.

"Life today has no meaning at all for me," said Baharuddin, 49, who has thinning hair, a furrowed brow and a fisherman's lean, wiry body, tanned to a dark chocolate hue. "Now, suppose I find a job and make money. To whom can I distribute it?" he asked rhetorically, seated on a log in the rubble-strewn village and smoking a clove cigarette. "I have no wife anymore. No children anymore."

A Merger of Necessity

When he is not at the village site, Baharuddin can be found about five miles away at an elementary school turned relief camp on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

Baharuddin spent 30 years on the sea, fishing for snapper and grouper in the shallows along a reef. He quit college to send his younger siblings to school. Before the tsunami, he had risen to become not only head of the village, but also Sea Commander, leader of an association of fishermen in nine villages.

Now he is also in charge of Lamtutui, a neighboring village that was so devastated that the survivors decided to merge with Lamteungoh. Together, they are about 240 people -- 140 men, 46 women and about 54 children -- sleeping in two classrooms and a small mosque on the school grounds.

One recent day, the sidewalk outside the school was crowded with plastic chairs, cooking pans and clothes hanging to dry.

Muhammed Pawangsufi, 55, laughed as Faris, a bubbly 2-year-old, romped up to him, demanding candy. Muhammed, a widower with an injured right eye, handed him a sweet and patted his backside as he scampered away. Faris also suffered an eye injury during the tsunami.

For several days after the tragedy, the boy cried for his mother, Muhammed said. "I just told him, 'Please don't call for your mother. It will make me cry.' "

He said the tragedy had drawn the men closer. "We are like a big family now," he said. "We share everything. Whatever I have, I share. Whatever they have, they share. We share our hopes and our sadness, and sometimes, when I am missing my family, they try to calm me. And sometimes, when they're crying, it's my turn to calm them down."

To the villagers, Baharuddin exudes authority. A man who sells chicken approached, asking for a letter in case police stopped him when he tried to bring his two water buffalo to town from Lamteungoh. A widow wanted help in getting her family's savings from the bank, but her husband's bankbook was destroyed and she did not know the account number.

Baharuddin, despite his role as the chief decision-maker, has more questions than answers.

Will the government help build them houses? Where will it choose to relocate the village? Will the government give them new fishing boats? Will the international relief effort fade?

"You see, life has changed," Baharuddin said. "I used to be independent, free to go wherever I wanted to go. Right now I am a dependent person, waiting for the government to help us. All I can do is be patient."

Another day last week, the sound of hammers pounding nails into planks broke the funereal quiet of Lamteungoh. Using tools salvaged from the rubble, Baharuddin's men were building a community shelter.

Within hours, they constructed a lean-to on the foundation of what used to be Baharuddin's office. A white tarpaulin served as a roof.

"Comfortable enough, eh?" Baharuddin said with a satisfied grin. The shelter, the only one like it for miles around, was a tangible sign that despite some villagers' qualms about returning to the site, the men intended to come back in some fashion. "Under this shelter, we can relax, take a nap whenever we come out here," Baharuddin said.

At midday, they broke for lunch. But first, three men wanted to pray. On a concrete slab nearby, all that is left of a small mosque, they stood, knelt, then touched their foreheads to the surface.

The prayer over, the men dined on rice and fish wrapped in banana leaves. "This is the first time the village of Lamteungoh has eaten together in Lamteungoh since the tsunami," Baharuddin said with a broad smile. "I'm touched. I'm happy."

With food in their bellies and a tarp over their heads, the men relaxed.

Baharuddin sat gazing at the debris-studded land framed by an azure sea and sky. "I still remember my house, coming home to my family, taking off my shoes, my shirt" he murmured. Then he began to sing a plaintive tune.

"I can't stand living alone in this world without you," he crooned in Indonesian. "How dare you leave me alone here?"

'Please Protect Me'

At the relief shelter, Baharuddin sat cross-legged on his mat in a corner of a classroom. He tallied figures in a notebook. Of 135 families in Lamtutui village, 70 are completely gone. Of 160 families in Lamteungoh, 93 have been wiped out.

He sighed and lit a smoke. As village head, it was his job to keep track of such data for the local authorities.

As he was checking the figures, a woman with a gaunt face, her hair pulled back in a bun, wandered in, muttering to herself. Mahdia looked like a woman in her thirties whom grief had prematurely aged. Asked how old she was, she replied, "a hundred."

"The police are after me," she told Baharuddin anxiously. "They want to shoot me. I'm all alone now. Please protect me."

He tried to calm her. "It's okay," he said. "Don't be afraid. No one will shoot you."

Mahdia has snapped, the villagers said. Unmarried, she went crazy after the tsunami killed her widowed mother. Don't pay attention to her, they said.

One evening, Muhammed, the widower with the injured eye, saw her downing a large dose of syrupy medicine. "Mahdia!" he shouted. "Don't take so much!"

"She thinks that if she drinks a lot of medicine, it will make her strong," he said.

Now Baharuddin wanted to take a nap. He removed his shirt, rolled up the cuffs of his jeans and lay down on his mat.

Soon, Mahdia approached. "Oh God, please protect me!" she repeated over and over.

"Don't bother me! Go away!" he snapped, and rolled over on his side, away from her.

Mahdia lay down on the floor near him, shaking and mumbling to herself.

Not quite an hour later, Baharuddin awoke. Refreshed, he engaged a reporter in a conversation about foreign aid to tsunami survivors. What aid had the Americans delivered? How long would they stay?

Mahdia resumed rambling and shivering.

"Don't act like a crazy woman," he told her and slapped her knee. She slapped his knee back.

Baharuddin said the song he had sung at Lamteungoh captured his sorrow. "It tells of a man who is left by his wife and children, and so he lives all alone," he said, his voice breaking.

"When I sing that song, I'm not expressing just my feelings, but also the feelings of all the men here whose wives are gone," he said, looking into the distance, his gray-brown eyes filling with tears. He wiped them away.

As he spoke, lost in reverie, he began to massage Mahdia's temple. She lay on the floor near him.

He continued to stroke Mahdia's temple. She grew quiet. And she closed her eyes.

Baharuddin said he was determined to keep the village of widowers together, to build new homes, if not at the old site near the sea, then up closer to the mountains, near the spot where the Lamteungoh survivors spent two nights in a makeshift shelter after the tsunami.

Almost a month after the tsunami, Baharuddin and other villagers were still reclaiming bodies from the village wreckage.

One of the villagers, Marwadi Ajad, 39, a tuna fisherman, said he spent the morning looking for the body of his wife. She was tall, slim and fair, he said, and she was his soul mate. "Maybe next year I will look for a wife," he said. "But next year -- not this year!"

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