For volunteers, a grisly task

About 40,000 people died in Banda Aceh alone, and retrieving all the bodies is likely to take at least a month.

Published January 6, 2005 3:06PM (EST)

When news of the destruction reached Asep Santosa, the 33-year-old tourist guide decided he had to do something. He set off from his hometown of Bogor, just south of Indonesia's capital of Jakarta, and flew to Banda Aceh, the town flattened by last week's tsunami.

Wednesday Santosa had a new role: collecting the dead. He is one of an army of middle-class volunteers who have converged on Banda Aceh to offer their help and who are now burying its victims. "This is my country. I'm very sad about the situation. There are so many bodies here," he said. Santosa spent Wednesday afternoon combing through the hellish ruins of Banda Aceh's riverside Lambura district, together with eight other volunteers and two soldiers. Most houses have disappeared; others are still engulfed in an apocalyptic tangle of masonry, mud, palm trees, fishing boats and corrugated metal.

It did not take them long to find the first corpse -- buried inside a shattered house. "We've found men, women, girls," Santosa said, as the other volunteers, all them from Bogor and wearing gas masks and rubber gloves to protect against the stench, carried out the sagging body on a piece of wood. "I've lost count of the dead," Santosa said. "There are too many."

At least 40,000 people appear to have died in Banda Aceh alone. The task of retrieving them all is likely to go on for at least the next month.

Banda Aceh's volunteers include soldiers, policemen and hundreds of affluent Indonesians who have been moved by Aceh's plight and have given up their regular jobs. "I don't have any problems sleeping because I'm so tired," Nasrula, a 29-year-old volunteer, also from Bogor, said. "We start work at 8 a.m. and finish at 4 p.m. I sleep out in the open." How long would he stay? "Three weeks. Then I'll go back to my job in Jakarta. I'm a graphic designer."

Wednesday the authorities began to clean up the town's devastated harbor area, which had been sealed off. Virtually nobody survived here. Hundreds of corpses remain under tons of rubbish and driftwood; others bob uncollected in Aceh's green-gray river. The diggers moved in early, hacking out filth from smashed-in shops. A group of army cadets sat by the river next to seven newly bagged corpses. Behind them, refugees from further down Aceh's coast arrived in an overcrowded boat. More bloated bodies floated near the water's edge.

Why hadn't they retrieved them? "We've run out of plastic bags," one of the cadets, Dasril, 25, said. "We set off this morning with 50. We've used them all already." More personal items lay among Lambura's pulverized seaside villas: a child's bike, a Teletubby, a mud-encrusted wedding album.

As well as the volunteers from Jakarta and other parts of urban Indonesia, relatives turned up looking for their loved ones. "My brother Ibrahim is missing," Mohammad Usman, from Jakarta, said. "He phoned us after the initial earthquake and said that everything was OK. We have found the bodies of his son and daughter. But we can't find him. His wife survived. She is with us."

Just beyond where the volunteers stopped collecting bodies, former residents wandered amid the ruins. "There's a body in my house," Abdul Samad, a rickshaw driver, said. He climbed up to a heap of concrete and pointed at a human form, covered by a pink sheet. Whose body was it? "I don't know. It's a woman."

"All of my neighbors are now dead," he added. "There were five people living over there. Most of the dead are women and girls. I'm the only one left."

By Luke Harding

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