A city rebuilds with elephants and prayer

In the hard-hit city of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, survivors salvage homes and forge new bonds with extended family.

Part 1 of three

Yishak Hasbi stands on a small bridge that divides the beach sand of Banda Aceh from a flatland of carnage that stretches inland as far as his eyes can see. Gone is the familiar patchwork of homes, rice paddies, and fishing shanties.

On Dec. 26, says Mr. Hasbi, the sea emptied the basin of this city like an overturned soup bowl, washing all he has known and loved - including 60 family members - into the sea or into the foothills.

Yet Hasbi, still fresh with heartbreak and the challenge of life in a makeshift camp, refuses to succumb to the destruction that has transfixed the globe: "You can tell the world," he says with a steely glare, "the Acehnese know the difference between what is timeless and what is temporary. We don't say this is from God, or Allah, or even from nature."

As dusk falls and a balmy wind lifts the smoke of garbage fires dampened by a light rain, he presses his point. "With God's help," says the fisherman, "we will rebuild."

One month after a devastating wall of water swept through this city on the northern tip of Indonesia, the area hardest hit in the region, the prevailing mood is a gritty determination to rebuild amid widespread signs that progress has been steady. The backdrop, however, remains grim: Bodies continue to be pulled from the mud, and debris looms high over streets once framed by houses and shops. Information centers still display the pictures that family members have posted, hoping for clues about loved ones. More than 103,000 people have been buried in the province, with upwards of 127,000 missing and, by now, presumed dead.

Not far up the road from where Hasbi stands, though, children play badminton on grassy front yards untouched by the disaster. The thump of helicopters - their rotor wash bending treetops to the ground - underscores an unprecedented global response. While most businesses remain shuttered, a few have pushed the mud out of their shops and reopened. Even as the US military starts its pullback, some relief groups are drawing up plans for a multiyear aid effort.

For some here, the activity is enough to lay the groundwork for hope - to counter the frustration of heavy daily rains and worries about how to start over. "A portion of this town remains," says one man, wearing a traditional peci hat, "and with it, the heart and soul of what has been built here over the centuries can sprout again."

Still, a drive through town, westward from where Hasbi is trying to reconstruct his life, offers a kaleidoscopic view on a city struggling to find its footing as a disparate legion of international aid workers, military, and local volunteers labors - with unparalleled efficiency, say many relief experts - to help amid the heat and confusion.

Camping out

Dotting Banda Aceh (ah-chay), the provincial capital that was home to between 260,000 and 300,000 people before the tsunami, are temporary encampments that are the hallmark of any natural disaster. They range from one or two tents in a roadside ditch to dozens of larger shelters in ordered rows.

Some groups, like the World Food Program and the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, are pitching tents and occupying buildings near the center of town. Others work close to the small airport, where US, German, British, and French helicopter units rotate in and out, part of a rhythmic operation to drop supplies to the remotest villages along the Sumatran coast. Fleets of gasoline generators provide electricity, satellite dishes and aerials sprout from rooftops, and skeins of electrical cords drape the ground. Cartons of water, medicine, and protein bars are stacked everywhere. Inside the tents, workers drenched by perspiration and rain scurry between makeshift desks and chairs. Scores of cots are surrounded in mosquito netting.

The scene is testament to the ability of many organizations' to mobilize quickly. But out on the streets, amid acres of debris, recovery is a painstaking process.

About two miles inland from where Hasbi stands next to the beach, a group of young Indonesian soldiers stand ankle deep in mud, watching as two elephants wade through six feet of water surrounding a collapsed home. Because only so many bulldozers are available - perhaps 50 are deployed in Banda Aceh - the elephants are a welcome aid.

With trainers from the town's Elephant Conservation League clamped like clothespins around their necks and holding their giant ears to balance, the elephants dip their trunks into the water and toss trees and phone poles aside.

Chains clank as the trainer yells out "da duk (sit down)"; "Jalan (forward)"; and "berdiri (stand up)." A crumpled Honda Civic finally emerges from beneath a leaning house, which spills into the water with a splash.

First Private Sogeng Riyhanto, who is 24 - one of 35,000 Indonesian troops deployed to the city - is matter of fact. "It's the same as any other [work] detail, really," says the Indonesian soldier, wearing a surgical mask and smoking a cigarette in pouring rain. "We are trained for this. Central command gives the orders and we follow them."

Steel and wood aren't the only items to emerge from the muck. The soldiers move quickly to deal with fresh discoveries of bodies from excavation - still about 3,000 per day. Black body bags line practically all routes through town. On one afternoon, two trucks of Indonesian forces amble to a halt, dig, and then fill a mass grave right next to the road. "It's where our commander told us," says the driver before gunning his truck back up a steep embankment en route to another load of corpses.

One military attaché rolls his eyes and says the task will continue for months, if not years.

The military convoys have taken over streets where cars and scooters used to vie for space with cows and chickens. The Indonesian military seems to close and open certain corridors and areas at will - including Ulee Lheule, where Hasbi lives. Soldiers occupy nearly every corner, some using the barrels of their rifles to direct traffic along J.L. Iskandar Muda Boulevard, where the piles of debris grow as the road moves toward the center of town. Because of the 30-year separatist struggle of Aceh, the military's strenuous work of cleanup, protection, and maintaining order is colored by politics.

"I feel sorry for them," says Suhendri, a man who has brought his family by car from Bireuen, 137 miles south. He wants his children to understand the destruction first hand. "The [Indonesian military] have been given an impossible task without enough personnel or equipment amid a population which wants to pull away from their country."

Over at the airport, about six miles from where Hasbi stood, the US military is focused on its 80 missions a day to communities that stretch for hundreds of miles along the west coast of Sumatra. The workhorses of the operation - helicopters - descend in a steady cycle, blowing the orange plugs out of volunteers' ears and knocking the sweat off helpers like a slap in the face. Unprepared newcomers get knocked down. Hats fly off. Aid trucks from dozens of international groups back down a deeply rutted road, and bucket brigades get to work schlepping skids of Indonesian rice, medical supplies, water, high-protein bars, and other supplies into the helicopters, which then disappear over the gumdrops of mountain rainforest en route to the remotest villages.

Collective solitude

The cacophony of the operation short-circuits conversation until the field is empty - a rarity, with four stations of entry and exit. In those moments, communication begins in earnest. Most of the time, volunteers sit or stand with eyes transfixed a few feet ahead, lost in thought. Over and over and over, from dawn to late afternoon, the work is a study in monotony, backbreaking work, and collective solitude.

Seaman Jeri Dollar, from the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed offshore, says the experience is "hot, wet ... [and yet] It feels too good to be exhausted," she adds, wearing blue military fatigues and gloves, and sipping water through a mouthpiece from her camel pack.

"Things are going great," says Cmdr. Craig Yeager, overseeing the helicopter operations from a tarp-covered command post peppered with Pringles cans and Mountain Dew. "People have no idea how much coordination and planning it takes to pull something like this off."

For the hundreds of aid workers, journalists, and others visitors, simply finding a place to sleep can be a challenge. Samuel Sinar, whose family runs the Medan Hotel, emerges from the shadows to tell visitors his hotel has electricity, air conditioning, and beds - but no staff. "I have more than 200 rooms," he says. "But I have no workers to run the place."

The need for housing has spawned a group of spontaneous hosts - families eager to earn the top dollar outsiders are often willing to pay. Many also work as guides and drivers, earning more in a day than they usually could in a month. Those opening their homes have often lost relatives or businesses. "We love having the guests because it keeps our minds off the tragedy," says Ida Rasyid, who has housed Dutch and US journalists in her home, three miles in from the shore. She fixes them meals and offers melon drinks. "They give us income, make us laugh. They are a blessing."

Salvage work

Back near Ulee Lheule, those residents who fled are driving, biking, or simply walking to where their homes once stood. A man, his cousin, and two colleagues are collecting wood and nails to build a new structure, though they have no way to transport the pieces of timber, and no official permission to move forward. "We want to take control of our future and begin to build a new life," says Mohammed Rasyid Musa, a 67-year-old businessman who lost 20 relatives. "Usually, I would be cleaning my house for Sunday visitors. Now, I am trying to salvage boards for a future I cannot envision in a place I don't even know where."

His friend, Safrizal Idris, takes a sledgehammer to a wall, trying to salvage bricks. "They haven't told us where or when we can build, but we want to be ready," says Mr. Musa.

The sweltering heat and humidity are little deterrence. On one day, despite a chrome noon sun, two men are hard at work demolishing a house. "I'm the older of the two of us," says one man, wearing flip-flops and shorts. "That is why he has the sledgehammer and I tell him what to hit."

The structures that remain offer solace to many residents. Just blocks away at the center of town stands the giant Baiturrahman Mosque. Like several other mosques, it survived the waves - a blessing residents are quick to identify.

Five times a day, starting at 5 a.m., the call to prayer can be heard throughout the city. "The prayer services are islands of solace in this chaos," says a woman leaving the mosque. "Our conversations with Allah are what hold us together."

"It is a sign from God that the mosques were saved," says Siti Aisah, standing outside Masjid Bairurrahim Mosque, near the beach. "There is a message in all this that we should all be taking care to move closer to Him."

The call is heard in refugee camps as well. Beneath the canopy of Ara trees at the Posko 85 displaced persons' camp, Imam Zainun Tengku is getting ready for prayer.

Dragonflies flit, and half-tailed cats prance nearby as women kneel 12 feet behind the men in a makeshift mosque. Then over the microphone, come the words: "Almighty God, Almighty God. Let us gather to pray, let us gather to pray...."

Imam Tengku says every Muslim must now concentrate on moving forward and focus on prayer for clear direction.

Many residents say they are already moving into fresh relationships - with cousins, uncles, friends - that are filling the void of loss.

In the hills above Banda Aceh, 9-year-old Tiara Rezapahlevi is forging a new life with her grandmother. "It is a tragedy for her to lose her mother, and for me," says Marlian. "But I now have a new life with the gift of a new daughter. I am cherishing it." And at Posko 85, young friends play on a swing set made of rope and slats salvaged from the tsunami. "There is much to do here," says 12-year-old Rahmat Munadi, adding without hesitation: "We are happy."

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