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Receding waters reveal scale of tsunami destruction in Aceh

The Star (Malaysia), Jan 3, 2004

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Survivors huddle in clearings without food or shelter above the water-damage line all along the tsunami-ravaged coast of Indonesia?s Aceh province, and corpses float kilometres out to sea.

<< A mosque is the only structure left standing in the town of Meulaboh in Aceh province. - AP pic

A week after giant waves swamped parts of the provincial capital on the northern tip of Sumatra island, the water is only just beginning to drain off to reveal the full extent of the horrific destruction and yet more bodies to count.

?I?ve never seen anything like this. We?ve seen bodies 20 miles out to sea. You just cannot describe it,? said Captain Larry Burt, commander of a helicopter air wing on the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln parked 20km off the coast.

?Above the water line, there are people standing there waving flags trying to signal us. There are so many, you just can?t stop for all of them,? he said after a mission down the west coast, which bore the brunt of the Dec 26 quake and tsunami.

US and Indonesian military helicopters landing in remote areas were swarmed by starving villagers as flight crews threw out boxes of bottled water and food.

The aircraft were part of a multinational relief effort, with US$2bil (RM7.6bil) pledged so far, that is battling nightmarish logistical obstacles to deliver aid to millions of the needy, who included tens of thousands in Sri Lanka and India.

Walking the streets here yesterday, local clean-up crews and exhausted soldiers find it hard to know where to start, their efforts hampered by a steady drizzle.

Fires burn around the clock to clear areas around the main parade ground of wooden debris. The soggy ground, about the size of five football fields, is stacked with rubbish, smashed vehicles and badly decomposed bodies.

As water drains from many districts 

of this city of more than 300,000 people, a nightmarish landscape of sludge, flattened homes and tangled corpses is exposed. The stench is overpowering.

?We need so much help,? said Hayaddin, 51, a street vendor. ?People say more waves will come.?

Again during the long night, aftershocks from the massive quake that triggered the killer wall of water could be felt, sending panicked residents fleeing into the streets.

Zurhan, 23, a bulldozer driver, wearing a woollen jumper over his head to filter out some of the smell of death, stood in the middle of the parade ground shaking his head.

?It is so difficult to clean the ground. Everything is mixed together. I can?t count how many bodies I have seen here. Look at the garbage. I?m sure there are many more there,? he said.

As many as 30,000, of the roughly 80,000 Acehnese known to have died, perished in this city when the waves, triggered by the world?s most powerful earthquake in 40 years, swept through.

Indonesia?s Chief Social Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab visited Calang, yesterday and said the town would be abandoned after 70% of its population of 10,000 were killed by the tsunami.

?It?s not going to be a living area any more,? he said, adding that survivors from Calang would be taken to camps here and in Meulaboh.

Shihab said many other small villages along the devastated west coast of Aceh had also almost been wiped out.

?This is an enormous human tragedy. The biggest problem right now is water ... It?s poisoned,? Jorgen Poulsen, chief of the Danish Red Cross, said at a noodles and cooking oil distribution centre outside what was the city?s trendiest shopping centre.

?We hope we can avoid cholera. The problem is we have already seen people vomiting in town.?

A United Nations Children?s Fund official said reports were coming in of children starting to die of pneumonia.

Many people are afraid of returning to their neighbourhoods and cluster in makeshift refugee camps, where desperate survivors use megaphones to find relatives. 

Yet amid all the destruction were glimmers of hope. In a part of this town less affected by the tsunami a market had opened, although food prices had doubled.

And local media reported 10 tourists from Britain, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and Switzerland were found alive on a small island about 25km off the Aceh coast.

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