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INDONESIA-MEULABOH Jan-24-2005 (790 words) With photos. xxxi

In Meulaboh, Indonesians find remnants of their previous lives

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

MEULABOH, Indonesia (CNS) -- In the rubble of his seaside village along Aceh province's West Coast, Sofyan Umar cleaned off the identity card of a female neighbor.

It was his first time back since a series of giant waves swept through Meulaboh, crushing everything in their path. The identity card was the only tangible reminder Umar could find that this once bustling village of fishermen and merchants once contained life.

The neighbor was killed by the Dec. 26 tsunamis, said Umar, 47. He said he would return the identity card to the woman's surviving family members once he finds them.

As he stood on the concrete slab that was the foundation of his house in January, Umar met with a small group of villagers, some of whom were returning for the first time, others who make a daily pilgrimage in search of their loved ones.

The neighbors wept as they embraced at Meulaboh's coastline, where tears flow easily, as they do throughout most of Indonesia's Aceh province. An escalating Indonesian death toll reached 160,000 by Jan. 22, officials said, but church workers said they believe the number will exceed 200,000 as the sea slowly surrenders its dead. Additionally, many more bodies previously unaccounted for are expected to be recovered after the arrival of the heavy equipment needed to excavate buildings destroyed by the magnitude 9 earthquake. Less than half of Meulaboh's population survived the disaster.

All those gathered on the coastline said they, too, had lost an immediate family member.

As they searched for signs of their lives before the tsunamis, survivors said their village was supposed to be off-limits as the Indonesian military retrieved weapons and ammunition scattered from a nearby army barracks. But they said the usually hardened but equally heartbroken soldiers guarding the checkpoint allowed the villagers in so that they could pay their respects to deceased family members and friends.

Meulaboh's coastline was completely destroyed, except for the frame of a mosque located less than 1,000 feet from the water. Many people fled to the mosque to pray when a first wave approached their village, then most were killed when a second, 50-foot wave engulfed their city. A third wave of similar dimensions finished off the city, survivors said.

Many of those displaced by the tsunamis say they do not want to return to their homes due to trauma or fears of future impending disasters. But Umar, a fish merchant whose wife was killed, said he wants to return soon, and he wants the government to quickly have a plan so that he and his neighbors can rebuild their homes and reclaim their livelihoods.

"We need to rebuild our homes; we need to start working again," he said.

"I have no fear of returning. History has shown us that the tsunami comes once in 100 years. Let us return to our homes," he said.

Several nongovernmental organizations -- including Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency -- have started cash-for-work programs and are trying to quickly implement microcredit programs, said Anna Schowengerdt, business development manager for CRS.

"These people need to start making a living again; they need to start contributing to their families; they need to feel like they are contributing to society," she said.

Schowengerdt said CRS will be providing seeds to farmers and providing loans so that fishermen can replace their boats and fishing nets.

In Meulaboh, Saribanon, 30, who like many Indonesians uses one name, lost 10 family members, including her husband, parents and children. Dressed in a purple jilbad, the Muslim dress worn by most women in fundamentalist Aceh province, she stood calmly at the water's edge, where she comes nearly every day.

"When I come to the sea, I can imagine gathering with my family. I can remember my husband carrying my daughter to the second floor; I can see him holding her above his head as the water rose," she told Catholic News Service.

"I am sad all the time because I am alone, but I feel peace here because when I am here, I feel like I am with my family," she said.

Saribanon, who lives in a refugee camp, said she occasionally visits her brother, whose home is still partially standing, but too crowded to absorb another person. Because he has a home, she is usually denied provisions by the Indonesian directors of her refugee camp.

"They say I am already being fed; that I do not need more. But when I am with my brother, I cry. I do not want to eat; I do not want to sleep. When I sleep, all I have is my nightmares," she said.


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