Friday, February 11, 2005

Alone and Forlorn, a Survivor Pines for His Family

Andreas Harsono

LAMNO, Indonesia, Feb 11 (IPS) - Muhammad Ali finished a plate of fried noodles, sipped a glass of cold tea and lamented about his misfortune in a coffee shop at the market in small town Lamno, about 200 kilometers south of the Acehnese capital Banda Aceh.

''No amount of aid can bring back the lives of any of my children,'' he said, lighting his cigarette and looking at a relief truck from the aid organisation World Vision that was distributing plastic buckets, soap bars, cooking utensils, batteries and other essentials at a refugee camp behind the market.

The aid operation in tsunami-ravaged Aceh is moving into a second phase, as rescue workers begin to look at ways of providing long-term support.

''The peak of the emergency operation is behind us,'' said a U.N. official. ''The difficult part starts now.''

Six weeks on from the disaster, aid workers are focusing on rebuilding and returning people to their former homes.

More than 400,000 people were left homeless in Aceh as a result of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami. At least 225,000 others are dead or missing.

Ali used to be a 'keuchik' or village head in his coastal hamlet of Cot Dulan, near Lamno, before he married Yusmanida, a woman from Ujung Muloh -- a fishing village about 15 minutes walk from the market.

They married about 15 years ago and 'keuchik' Ali moved to Yusmadina's village to become a trader.

He bought a piece of land and then started a small business venture. Yusmanida later gave birth to a son and two daughters.

Just like most Acehnese, they lived with their kin and Yusminda's parents and grandmother were a permanent part of the family.

But Ali's tranquil life changed drastically on Sunday, Dec. 26, when the killer waves washed away the whole of Ujung Muloh. There were only 21 survivors, and Ali was one of them.

''It was one of the first villages hit by the waves,'' said Hendi, a hardware seller in the market.

''As the water started rising fast from the first wave, we started running. Then the second wave hit,'' recalled Ali. ''It was huge - as tall as a coconut tree, maybe 20 to 30 meters high.''

Ali held on to his youngest daughter, who was only 10 days old. They ran together without saving anything.

Yusmanida, who had not fully recovered from the delivery, was assisted by her mother. The couple's 13-year-old son Suheri Akhar and 11-year-old daughter Santrina ran together behind their parents. The two also held on tight to their great grandmother as they were running.

The second huge wave however swallowed the whole family.

''I was submerged. I swam and appeared on the surface to find out that I was already at sea. It was more than one kilometer from my house,'' he said.

''I checked my baby daughter, not sure, whether she was dead or still alive. The water was moving so fast. I had to let her go,'' added Ali with tears welling in his eyes.

Then a third wave carried him to Alumi, three villages away from Ujung Muloh.

''A tree trunk hit my back when I was in the water. I also suffered some bleeding in my left forehead. Look at this!” he said, pointing to black scar that marks his face.

In the water, Ali managed to hang on to a wooden plank that floated towards a coconut tree. He then grabbed the tree and just hung on till the water subsided.

When he came down from the coconut tree he saw corpses everywhere.

Still staring blankly at the World Vision truck outside the coffee shop, Ali said he had lost his wife, his children, his mother-in-law, his wife's grandmother, his gold deposit, money, house and everything else.

''Only my father-in-law survived. He was fishing at sea then,'' he revealed.

Mustafa Ibrahim, a schoolteacher who helped organise grassroots support among the Lamno villagers said Ali was a broken man after having lost his immediate family.'' But at least he is alive. And I think he has to be thankful for that.''

Ibrahim and many villagers, who live in downtown Lamno, helped victims like Ali -- setting up temporary shelters in school buildings and feeding the survivors.

The tsunami cut off Lamno as well as neighboring Calang from the outside world, when it swept away bridges linking the towns to the main highways. Outside help only arrived in Lamno seven days later.

''If outside help did not arrive, we might have faced starvation as food supplies were almost gone,'' said Ibrahim.

Joel Thaher of the Ratna Sarumpaet Crisis Center, a Jakarta-based non-governmental group that manages the Gle Putoh camp in Lamno, said relief agencies were still relying on helicopters and boats to bring in food and medicine.

''The bridges and roads are still badly damaged,'' he told IPS.

Returning to New York from a week-long tour of the Indonesian province a month after the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, John L. McCullough, executive director of the international humanitarian agency Church World Service said: ''Survivors in Aceh are beginning to pick up their lives, but their needs continue to be almost overwhelming.''

''This territory cannot be left idle or left in the lurch to rebuild,'' he said in a plea to the international community.

''Recovery of the dead is still going on-and the international community is very much involved,'' McCullough said. ''But the world community must stay focused and present for what will be long-term recovery in these worst-hit tsunami regions.''

McCullough echoed a plea from the United Nations Wednesday for world governments to keep their pledge promises for tsunami recovery. According to the U.N., almost two-thirds of the money promised by governments to help the millions of people affected by the tsunami has yet to be received by the world body.

So far, only 360 million U.S. dollars have been received --little more than a third of the total 977 million dollars needed for the projected first six months of emergency phase relief work. (END/2005)

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