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Along the Coast of Death

Annihilation to Haunt Generations

Bodies Bulldozed Into Mass Graves in Indonesian City Closest to Quake

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page A01

MEULABOH, Indonesia, Jan. 7 -- From the indentation her head left in the mud, the girl seemed about 5 years old. The soldiers recalled they found her face down under a collapsed brick wall.

A fluffy yellow Big Bird doll lay slumped across the earth six feet away, near a pink halter top bearing English words -- "Life Changes." Nearby, the soldiers found a man's driver's license. Whoever he was, he was probably dead, too.


A mosque is the only structure seen standing in this aerial view Meulaboh, a city on the ravaged west coast of Sumatra island, which has been cut off from most relief efforts since the tsunami Dec. 26. (Dudi Anung -- AP)

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Nothing else was known about the little girl extracted on Friday morning from the rubble of a house near the Suak Indrapuri mosque. She was found here on the coast of death, the isolated western side of the island of Sumatra that was closest to the epicenter of the powerful undersea earthquake 12 days ago. The quake unleashed an enormous tsunami that crashed into 12 nations and killed more than 147,000 people in the latest count.

Even by the standards of the carnage inflicted elsewhere by the catastrophe, what happened here will evoke horror and amazement for generations to come. In a city of more than 100,000 people, somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 perished in a single day, according to reports from government officials and aid workers.

The tsunami severed Meulaboh from the rest of the world, slicing into the coastal highway, a lifeline to the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Along the road, houses were destroyed, fields turned into swamps, trees splintered and telephone and electrical lines downed.

The Indonesian soldiers who found the girl carried her to the road. Indonesian Red Cross volunteers wrapped her in black plastic sheeting, dropped her in a truck with other corpses, then drove her to a mass grave. They took no fingerprints and did not check for any special markings. In their hand-written report, they logged the finding only of another dead child.

Just before the sun dropped into the ocean, a bulldozer lifted more than 60 bodies into the pit. Without ceremony or funeral rites, the machine scooped earth on top of the pile. Without recognition that these unidentified people had been daughter or son or husband or mother to anyone, they were buried in a 10-by-20-foot grave.

Death landed with such enormity that it disrupted the traditional rhythm of burial and mourning. So many bodies are waiting to be extracted from beneath collapsed buildings that Indonesian Army rescue crews have simply taken the bodies they've found and buried them en masse.

For predominantly Islamic communities already reeling from loss, the absence of physical remains has intensified the grief. Many people were left wondering what happened to their kin. Many will be left wondering forever.

"I know that all my family is gone, but we have to get the bodies," said Johansyah Alibasyah, who rode here on a motorcycle from his home nine hours away to try to recover the remains of his uncle and his three children. "We have to know where they are buried so we can visit them."

Water Like a Mountain

On higher ground, above the coast, a semblance of normalcy has taken hold. Markets are open again, offering fresh vegetables; restaurants sell fried rice wrapped in banana leaves. But much of the city remains a wasteland. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble, with everyday items -- sewing machines, electric fans, concrete blocks, tires -- strewn about in a mud-covered mosaic.

"It was Armageddon," said Maisura Zainol, 30, who survived the waves on the second floor of her concrete house, even as dozens of her neighbors were washed to their deaths. "The water was like a mountain. We thought we were going to die."

On Korpri Street, a road near the beach lined with handsome, two-story houses, Diana, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, mourned the loss of her sister. She picked through the pile of boards that was her house, looking for whatever useful items she could scavenge.

She had been holding on to her sister tightly as they stood in the street when the water swept in around them, she recalled. She shouted an Islamic prayer, "There is no God but God." But the force of the water pried her sister from her arms. The next thing she knew, she was atop a neighbor's roof, floating. Her sister was gone.

A neighbor pushed the floating roof toward her house and she stepped off on her second floor, then grabbed onto the top of a tree. When a second wave came, it snapped the trunk and flung her to the ground.

She slogged through waist-deep water, through bodies and debris, across the street to a mosque. She took refuge there on the second floor, looking down as a third wave swept in. She watched it wash over people stuck out in the street.

What had been a relatively affluent neighborhood, home to civil servants and their families, was now a grisly swamp. A woman who lived next door was swept away by the wave. So was another in the next house down.

Through the afternoon and evening, a street where people often sat on their verandas taking in the salt air and the breeze off the ocean was filled with screams for help, calls to unseen relatives.

She listed the names of the friends she could not find, people who were almost certainly dead: "Jamali, Nonong, Sri. . . . "

"In normal times, when our neighbor dies, we visit their house and pray to God," she said. "We help in the funeral, we give them rice, some money, sit and have coffee." Now, most people don't have houses. Rice comes in the form of a ration from a government aid station or a handout from one of the helicopters constantly buzzing overhead. Even the mosque across the street is closed, damaged by the water. "We can't do anything," she said.

But Diana at least has a semblance of peace denied to so many others here: Her family found her sister's body.

On the evening of the first day, her brother-in-law carried his wife through waist-deep muck for an hour, then loaded her on to his motorbike and drove her to his house in a village above the damage. They washed her body and wrapped her in white cloth. Then they said their prayers and buried her.

Sense of Siege

In the first days after the Dec. 26 cataclysm, life here was dominated by the stench of rotting flesh, fear of another wave and a desperate sense of siege, according to survivors.

The first international aid reached the city on Jan. 2. A Singapore armed forces medical team flew in by helicopter with 11 doctors and 21 support staff. One of the city's two hospitals had been completely destroyed. The other was standing, but nearly all of the staff members were dead or busy searching for missing relatives. An Indonesian medical team had arrived, but lacked equipment.

The Singapore crew found about 20 people standing outside the hospital who had broken bones and other injuries from flying debris. In four refugee camps in the city, they found people with cuts, gangrene, tetanus, fever and diarrhea. From surrounding towns and villages, people came seeking medical help.

"People are walking five days from the outskirts to come and see us," said one of the Singaporean physicians, Sean Leo.

Tens of thousands of survivors took refuge in more than two dozen camps set up around the city, according to Jean-Sebastian Matte, a logistics coordinator with the French aid group Doctors Without Borders.

At the Ah-Noor mosque, near the city center, the Friday afternoon call to prayer typically draws 500 people. About 700 arrived on this day, prostrating themselves in reverence, then listening to the imam, Syarifuddin Baharuddin, describe the disaster as vengeance from an angry God.

"This was caused by our sins," the imam said afterward in an interview, noting that the earthquake and tsunami came a day after Christmas. "Some Muslim people celebrated Christmas, they drank alcohol and they danced on the seashore in violation of the Muslim way. This was a big mistake."

Mass Graves

In the first three days after the disaster, Indonesian Red Cross and army rescue teams carried corpses to a makeshift morgue at a city hospital, allowing families to come and identify their dead. But the number of bodies quickly overflowed the space. The order came to take them directly to mass graves.

Sabiri Yusuf, a Red Cross volunteer was dumping corpses -- 59 in two hours -- into one pit next to a cemetery. The graves had been stripped bare by the torrent, leaving only the markers. "The bodies are so destroyed that we can't identify them," he said.

The Red Cross plans to launch a service to help relatives find remains, "after everything is quiet, everything is back to normal," said Gene Sudiartha, head of the organization's effort here. But he said rescue crews were taking no steps to identify the bodies they recovered and simply dumping them into the graves without markings.

On Friday evening, as a giant rainbow soared overhead, Roslaini Ismail, 44, arrived in Meulaboh with her family following a two-day journey down a treacherously muddy road to inspect the wreckage of her mother's house. "We haven't found the bodies yet," she said, as her 6-year-old daughter plucked a working flashlight from the ruins.

For Lan Xiang, the gnawing sense of incompleteness comes every day, as she sits on her porch looking out toward the empty patch of mud that was her brother's house.

On the day when everything changed, she took refuge upstairs, on the second floor of her house, above the Chinese restaurant she operates with her family. She stood at her window, safely perched above the onrushing water and watched something she will never forget: Her older brother, Li Jun, and his 18-year-old son, tried to escape on a motorbike. They were too late. She watched the giant wave take them.

When the water receded, Lan and her family began sifting through the debris for sign of the two men. They never found them, and never bothered to make a missing person's report at the local army base. "Waste of time," Lan said.

She holds out little hope that she will ever see their bodies, though she wants to bury them in the family cemetery in Meulaboh.

But the one thing that deprives her of peace is what is going on a half-mile away, where bulldozers drop unknown people into the ground. They could be her people. They could be anybody. "If we don't have the remains, we have an unsettled feeling," she said. "As if we don't really know what happened."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company