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Catastrophe in Southern Asia

City Awash in Death Casts Aside Ceremony

So many people in Meulaboh, Indonesia, died in the tsunami that there aren't enough living to take proper care of the bodies.

January 08, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

MEULABOH, Indonesia — The girl's body lay face down next to a toilet in a prosperous beachfront neighborhood. Near her were the paraphernalia of an interrupted childhood: a soggy pink tank top, a yellow Big Bird doll.

The girl, about 5 years old, was found at 10 a.m. Friday by Indonesian soldiers as they followed a trail of flies and the stench of death. By 5 p.m., her body, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, had been pushed unceremoniously by backhoe into a freshly excavated 10-by-20-foot trench, along with those of dozens of others killed 12 days earlier by the massive Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Meulaboh is the city that was closest to the epicenter of the quake, about 90 miles away. So many people were killed here that there are simply not enough of the living to take proper care of the dead.

Instead, the deceased are dumped into mass graves with little chance that their passing will even be recorded.

"Nobody knows how many bodies are here," said Nasrul Rasyid, a 42-year-old construction company owner whose backhoe was working on a mass grave near the beach. "There is no time. We have to keep working because there are so many more bodies."

With many civil servants among the dead and the city council offices destroyed, it is difficult even to come up with an accurate death toll.

Foreign aid officials who have toured the devastation in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India describe Meulaboh as the place hit hardest by one of the most massive natural disasters of modern times. Although estimates have fluctuated wildly, the current thinking is that 20% to 30% of the city's population of 105,000 was killed.

Most survivors are too busy looking for missing relatives and looking after themselves to help the injured, let alone take care of the dead.

Most hospital employees have been absent from work because they are caring for their own families, said aid worker Chris Cheok, a major with the Singaporean navy.

"They had a double whammy -- the earthquake and the tsunami," he said.

Even in tragedy, Meulaboh is a staggeringly beautiful place. The houses, or what remains of them, are painted in cheerful pastels, and their balustraded porches look out over a palm-fringed beach.

The sunset peeks through the remains of a mosque so gutted it looks like a gazebo. The ocean laps innocuously at the beach, as though feigning innocence.

On the morning of Dec. 26, the waves came crashing into the city, pushing nearly two miles in from shore. Water rushing down the main commercial strip reached the second floors of buildings and turned well-appointed houses into piles of wood and broken concrete.

In the first three days, bodies that were not retrieved by relatives were taken to makeshift morgues at hospitals and other public buildings. But the army, concerned about the overpowering odor and the threat of disease, ordered removal efforts stepped up, rescue workers said.

"Now we take them straight to burial. Since they are too decomposed to be identified, what's the point?" said hospital employee Sabiri Yusuf.

From all appearances, only the most cursory effort is made to give relatives an opportunity to identify and bury the dead.

About 8 feet from the body of the 5-year-old girl was the driver's license of one T. Hamdani, 28, which identified him as a telephone agency employee.

Was he her father? Another relative? The Indonesian soldiers combing through the rubble with long sticks and masks expressed no interest.

Lasron Sinaga, the 20-year-old army sergeant who found the young girl, said he felt "a little upset because the family will never know what happened to her ... probably they're all dead too."

There was no prayer, no ceremony, no attempt to identify the child.

The Indonesian Red Cross is making only a minimal effort to identify bodies. Volunteers used cameras to take photographs, which they said would be kept for internal use only.

"We have been ordered only to evacuate the bodies, not to do anything more," said Arif Chandra, a Red Cross volunteer, who watched as a yellow dump truck tilted its load of plastic-wrapped corpses toward the mass grave.

Almost everyone in Meulaboh has lost someone close, and some survivors are angry that more effort isn't being made to identify the bodies.

It is difficult here even to file a missing-person report. In Ujung Karang, the neighborhood near the beach where the girl's body was found, officials at an emergency office directed queries to one of three municipal offices. But at that office, the bureaucrat in charge said no, the report had to be filed in the neighborhood.

Anyone outside Meulaboh who wanted to file a report would find it impossible. There is no telephone service here, and the city is nearly cut off from the rest of Sumatra.

"We didn't file a report because we knew it would be a waste of time," said Lan Xiang, a 47-year-old owner of a Chinese restaurant. She watched from a second-floor balcony as the tsunami swept away her brother and his son as they tried to escape by motorcycle.

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