At tsunami's ground zero, finding family amid destruction

Firman Taud, a high school math teacher in Jakarta, has no idea whether his family in the tsunami-battered province of Aceh has survived.

All he knows is that a friend in Aceh sent him a text message on his cellphone: "Bring instant food."

So, Firman and his friend Irwandi, a physics student, show up at the military airport in Indonesia's capital Thursday and talk their way onto a flight carrying medicine and food to Banda Aceh.

When they touch down, the two are struck by the flurry of activity and confusion. Refugees are sitting on tarps and under makeshift tents. People are scrambling to get on flights out of the province. Others, like themselves, are arriving from other provinces to search for loved ones in a tropical land now strewn with debris and corpses.

One of Irwandi's uncles spots them and, despite having lost five family members himself, gladly assures him that his parents and siblings have survived the disaster.

Before setting off to find Firman's family, he and Irwandi stop at the mosque in the center of Banda Aceh, where Firman used to live and work. Inside, Firman, dressed in slacks, dress shoes, T-shirt, and a baseball cap, makes his way through the debris to a small room, where a dozen wounded people are sitting. He touches everyone's hand in the room in a gesture of sympathy and gives them a sip of water from a bottle he's carried from the flight.

"How does this make you feel. Does it make you want to cry?" Firman says turning to Irwandi, who nods.

Outside again, Firman looks toward the ocean in the direction of his village. The street is clogged with debris, impassable except on foot.

The two friends are overwhelmed and briefly look for something to eat. But even in the disaster relief center there's only a single bucket of water.

Firman and Irwandi wash and answer the call to prayer at the neighboring mosque before setting out again for Firman's village. On the way, Firman asks a man if he can get there. He says it's impossible. Firman hesitates again and tries to return to the mosque, but Irwandi yells at him.

"You're moving too slow," he says. "Why are you moving so slow? Come on! Let's go!"

On the streets of the capital, they flag down rides.

The two friends stop briefly to see Irwandi's family, who live in a part of Banda Aceh that seems scarcely damaged by the catastrophe. The flood waters hit areas unevenly, leaving one area seemingly undamaged next to another almost completely destroyed, making it impossible for many to guess the status of friends and relatives merely by the location of their homes.

They stop for a moment to inspect a mass grave across the street from the road leading to his house. But Firman is impatient. He hurries down a narrow dirt path, followed by Irwandi, who optimistically exclaims that the ground appears drier and the houses less damaged.

They shout, but no one answers. Firman disappears into a room. Suddenly there are cries of recognition followed by hysterical shouts. All of his siblings, whom he now says he hasn't seen in four years, are alive.

Despite the fact that almost half of their neighbors in the area are said to have perished, they seem to momentarily forget about the destruction and rejoice that they are alive.

"Praise be to God that my family is safe," Firman says.

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