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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-PARADISE Jan-28-2005 (580 words) With photos posted Jan. 27 and 28. xxxi

Between setting sun, rising moon, JRS discovers beachhead of horror

By Paul Haring
Catholic News Service

ACEH ISLAND, Indonesia (CNS) -- The sun set over Aceh island, a bright ball disappearing into the Indian Ocean. On the other end of the island, a nearly full moon glowed over coconut trees on the mountains overlooking the fishing villages of Lampuyang and Lhoh.

Between the setting sun and the rising moon was a beachhead of horror: fallen coconut trees, rotting corpses and a tangle of domestic debris discovered by volunteers from Jesuit Refugee Service who arrived on the island by boat Jan. 24.

Villages were completely destroyed on Aceh island, about a two-hour boat ride from the city of Banda Aceh on the tip of Sumatra island. JRS staffers found cattle huddled in the midst of debris; in the mountains, dogs howled as staffers moved farther inland.

The JRS team that arrived nearly one month after the Dec. 26 tsunamis was the first relief group to visit the island. Team members planned to survey the damage and make plans to return displaced villagers. They were joined by a small army of volunteers who helped bury the dead.

Some of the volunteers were island residents, who told stories of how survivors had lived on coconuts for six days until journeying by boat to Banda Aceh, where many were placed in camps.

Munadi, 20, was one of the villagers who volunteered to return to help with the cleanup. Before he left the island, be buried 80 villagers, including his mother, and he said he felt a sense of obligation to help further.

Munadi, who also lost two sisters in the disaster, said that he was nearly drowned in the tsunamis. He said that as the water approached he and many villagers ran to the mosque.

"We hoped the house of God would survive the tsunami" and its waves as tall as the coconut trees, he said. The waves pulled Munadi back toward the ocean, but he survived because he got stuck on a coconut tree.

Munadi, a Muslim, said the tsunami had strengthened and deepened his faith in God. He spoke of how even though he had lost many in his family "this is just God showing the might of God." Munadi said he wants to return to the island to live.

JRS volunteer Rheza Loekito, a young medical doctor and also a Muslim, said he believes the tsunami was "a punishment and a warning from God" because of the decades-long conflict between the government and the separatist rebels seeking independence from Indonesia.

Only 600 of about 1,500-2,000 villagers in Lampuyang and Lhoh survived the tsunami. Volunteers told how 300 children survived because they were in school at the time, and their teachers helped them run to the hills, which formed a steep barricade to the high waters. The villages were right along the seashore.

Huge piles of wood, fallen coconut trees, and all kinds of household items -- pots, plates, clothes and a sewing machine -- littered the beach.

College-age volunteers from a civic group in the town of Lampung, near Banda Aceh, worked Jan. 25 to find and bury the badly decayed bodies in a mass grave. Strong, constant ocean winds tempered the smell of death.

By mid-afternoon Jan. 25, the JRS team had already pitched several large tents for the return of the villagers. As the sun set, a young village boy helped a fishing boat captain string running lights for the night journey back to Banda Aceh.


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