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In Indonesia, Faith and Aid Can’t Relieve a Family’s Pain

Times Staff Writer

Amiruddin Amzit lost two sons, three brothers and hundreds of other relatives when the giant waves struck. Nearly everything the fish vendor owned was destroyed by the water, and now he wears mismatched beach sandals and used clothes he was given by aid workers.

He has moved his family six times from one relative’s home to another to avoid living in the tent camps that have sprung up around town.

He is unable to console his wife, Irmawati, who grieves over the loss of their sons, 11-year-old Romi and Raja, 7. With black hair and high cheekbones, she is poised and calm, but her eyes convey a tiredness that sleep cannot cure.

“I can’t even cry anymore,” she says.

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A month after the tsunami struck, millions of Indonesians are struggling to overcome death and destruction. As occasional aftershocks rock the neighborhood, survivors comb through rubble for jewelry, furnishings, lumber and scrap metal. Soldiers and Muslim militants continue to remove bodies for burial in mass graves, but the odor of undiscovered corpses floats on the breeze.

In their search for answers to the tragedy, many residents have turned to their Muslim faith and their belief that God decided who should live and who should die. Distrust of their government, however, remains high. Some residents, who have been victims of the military’s crackdown on Aceh’s separatist rebels, are wary of the Indonesian army’s role in distributing the millions of dollars in aid that have poured in from across the globe.

Neither God nor aid has ended the pain."My city is destroyed,” read the newly painted graffiti on one gutted building. “Ghosts are everywhere.”

The tsunami that swept in from the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26 demolished hundreds of coastal communities in Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province. The nation’s number of dead and missing stands at 228,000. More than 600,000 people are homeless. In Amiruddin’s Lampulo neighborhood, only 700 of the 6,000 residents survived.

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Those survivors are taking small steps to rebuild their lives. On a recent day when the 44-year-old Amiruddin visited his flooded house, there were two dead bodies in his yard and a rice cooker on his roof, all left by the tsunami. He ignored the corpses but pulled down the rice cooker, rinsed it with dirty water from the street and set the pot aside to give to his wife.

Other signs of recovery are present at the Lampulo riverfront, the neighborhood’s hub. Amiruddin and his half-brother, Sofyan Amzit, have helped organize a small fleet to haul emergency supplies to devastated villages along Aceh’s rugged west coast.

Sofyan, 53, a scrawny fishing boat captain who is missing most of his teeth, has become the agent for more than 30 vessels and helps arrange their rental to international aid groups. Another half-brother, Mukhlis, 35, a shrimp farmer who escaped the tsunami by taking refuge in a mosque, collects the money. Amiruddin keeps the books and buys fuel for the vessels.

“At the moment, I don’t think about what happened,” says Sofyan, who is so thin that his watch dangles loosely from his wrist. “I want to focus on my future. The opportunity is here to do business. If I can start earlier than others, I have more of a chance.”

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Across Aceh, which is on the island of Sumatra, families have rallied to help tsunami survivors. The more fortunate stay with relatives. As many as 30 homeless kin have been staying at the home of Cut Maneh, the widow of one of Amiruddin’s half-brothers. The relatives sleep on the living room floor and on the veranda and cook over fires in the yard.

Food has been scarce. At one point, relief workers gave Amiruddin a big bag marked “USA WHEAT SOY BLEND,” a form of aid widely distributed in the province by U.S. Navy helicopters.

Amiruddin brought the bag to the house and, amid much amusement, the family tried to figure out what it was. The Acehnese eat mainly rice and noodles, seldom bread.

Amiruddin’s half-sister Mawar tried using the bag’s contents to make bakwan, a breaded vegetable dish, but the flour would not bind. Disappointed, the family gave the bag to neighbors.

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Sometimes the mountain of sorrow within Maneh’s house seems too much to bear.

One of Amiruddin’s nephews lost his mother, brother, sister and two children. Another nephew lost his wife and 2-year-old son. Yet another lost his parents, four brothers and two sisters. He is only 22 years old but now has to care for two nephews and a niece who lost their parents.

Fajar Ahmad, 26, a distant relation, lost his entire family: his parents, five brothers and three sisters. “I have nothing now, no one,” he says sadly. “I am alone.”

Irmawati often sits quietly outdoors, holding the couple’s 4-month-old son, Abil. Their eldest son, Aulia, 15, sits next to his mother, softly reassuring her and sometimes holding the baby. Irmawati and Aulia have three fingertips on their left hands dyed orange with herbs to ward off disease.

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Some days, even her belief that her sons were fated to die does not seem to be enough.

“I’m sure it’s God’s will, but I feel so sad because they are so young,” says Irmawati, a 40-year-old former teacher whose parents and two brothers also are missing. “I would trade everything I own to have them back.”

Mawardi Usman, 32, a nephew who lost his parents and seven brothers and sisters, sponsored a prayer ritual at Maneh’s house 17 days after the tsunami to help put his relatives’ souls to rest.

More than 50 men, most wearing sarongs and black, flat-topped peci hats, squeezed into the two main rooms of the house. They chanted verses from the Koran, and a cleric read out the nine names of the dead. When a sharp aftershock shook the house, some of the men looked up nervously, but no one stopped chanting.

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“Why did this disaster happen? Because sinful deeds are everywhere,” Abdus Salam, the imam, told the gathering. “This is like Noah’s ark. The world was so evil that God turned it upside down. And he could do that because he is the all-powerful.”

After the ceremony, Mawardi seemed relieved.

“It’s all in God’s hands,” he said.

Banda Aceh calls itself the City of the Faithful. This is where Islam arrived a millennium ago before spreading to the rest of what is now Indonesia. Before Dec. 26, few here had ever heard of tsunamis. Most regard the disaster as a cataclysmic religious event.

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Many believe the story that spread quickly after the tsunami: Late on Christmas night, a group of Christian Indonesian soldiers was partying near the grave of a revered 17th century Islamic leader. A man with a beard and white turban, known as the Gatekeeper, told the men to stop, but they rudely dismissed him. God became angry and the next day sent the waves to destroy Banda Aceh.

“This tragedy is a warning from God to realize that he is the most powerful being,” Amiruddin says after visiting the grave. “This is God’s wrath.”

The Amzits are well known in Lampulo. Their father, Amzit Teuku Rayeuk, was a wealthy fishing captain and businessman who was elected leader of Banda Aceh’s fishing fleet. A devout Muslim, he had four wives, 12 sons and two daughters. Sofyan, Amiruddin and Mukhlis had different mothers and grew up in separate households.

Survivors say they are haunted by their memories of the tsunami’s rage. Like a recurring nightmare, the details of their experience play over and over in their heads.

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Sofyan described how he and his crew felt the jolt of an earthquake about 8 a.m. on Dec. 26 while they were out at sea. Shortly after, the seabed behind him dried out and a wall of white water approached “as fast as lightning.”

He headed the 80-foot boat at full speed for the wave and shouted to his crew of 19 to strip to their underwear so they would have a better chance of swimming to safety if the vessel capsized. Sofyan piloted the boat over three giant waves. Behind him, he saw the waves hit Banda Aceh and could only imagine the devastation.

“Nobody will survive on land,” he recalls thinking.

On land, Amiruddin was tending his outdoor stall at the fish market a mile inland when he saw the wall of water approaching. He jumped on his motor scooter and raced past panicked people fleeing on foot, by motorbike and in cars. Some shouted out to God for forgiveness as they ran. He looked back once and saw the wave toss two fishing boats into the air. It was how he pictured Armageddon.

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He knew there was little chance of outrunning the water. Amiruddin, Irmawati, baby Abil and Aulia took refuge on the upper floor of a neighbor’s house. Four families followed them.

Irmawati recounted how she watched in horror as Romi ran off into the crowd of fleeing people. She screamed for him to stop, but he never looked back.

“It’s just like in the blink of an eye, but you can’t do it over,” Irmawati says.

Raja, who had gone to the neighbor’s house earlier to play on a PlayStation, could not be found.

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The families huddled on the neighbor’s balcony and watched the water carry off cars with people inside.

The noise of the waves crushing nearby houses sounded like explosions, Irmawati says. “With the sound of the water, I could only think of my two other boys.”

Amiruddin said he tied sarongs together to make a rope, climbed onto the roof and threw an end to people struggling in the water, hauling 10 of them to safety.

Eleven hours later, Sofyan headed into Banda Aceh and encountered a scene of utter devastation. He saw at least 400 bodies floating near the mouth of the Aceh River and feared his family was among them. As a crew member turned the bodies with a pole, Sofyan found his best friend, an uncle and four cousins, including two aged 3 and 7. One by one, he took the bodies to the shore and buried them.

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As he traveled farther into the city, he came to a bridge where hundreds of bodies had collected in the river. Paralyzed by the enormity of the disaster, survivors milled around like zombies, bumping into one another without saying a word.

Since the tsunami, Sofyan’s family has been dividing its time between a camp for displaced people outside Banda Aceh and the distant village home of his eldest brother, Abu Bakar, who is missing. Abu Bakar’s wife, Zaimah, 57, who also lost a son and grandson, has taken in dozens of homeless relatives, who sleep in rows on the tiled veranda and her living room floor. No one sleeps in the two-story bedroom area, fearing more earthquakes.

Before the tsunami, Sofyan and his family lived half a mile from the Lampulo pier. Bodies have been cleared from his street, but the house is full of water. He expects to be in temporary quarters for many months.

“The government said they would help rebuild the houses of the people,” he says. “Let’s see if they keep their promise.”

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Sofyan has reason to be skeptical. He owned a thriving fishing export business when he was jailed in 1995 on charges that he was a rebel. He says soldiers beat him with pieces of wood and repeatedly tortured him with electric shocks. His weight dropped from 135 to 85 pounds.

He was released months later, but his business was in ruins. He says he lost assets worth millions, including three fishing boats and 400 acres of shrimp farms. His health has never recovered.

“After the tsunami, a lot of Acehnese just like me are very happy to see foreigners here because we feel there is more protection for us,” he says. “Extortions and beatings have lessened.”

Unlike others, surviving the tsunami seems to have made him stronger and better prepared to rebuild his life. “I don’t feel regret or fear,” he says as he sits in the cabin of his boat sheltering from a tropical downpour. “What I feel now is proud that I saved myself and my crew.”

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With the Lampulo pier demolished and the fish market in ruins, the half brothers take shelter from the sun under a sagging tent covered with thick green plastic and conduct business from rough benches made with boards pulled from the rubble.

During the day, the makeshift port is a hub of activity, with boats tied up five deep along an undamaged section of the concrete embankment. Trucks deliver tents, blankets, food and medicine to be shipped out. Returning boats bring dozens of haggard-looking survivors anxious to learn the fate of their relatives in Banda Aceh.

For the boat owners, delivering aid is a welcome opportunity: The market for seafood has collapsed with consumers’ fears that the fish are feeding on corpses washed into the sea. Amiruddin, who searched for his missing boys for a week after the tsunami, now tries to lose himself at the riverfront. “This is the place I go to forget,” he says.

Wearing a shirt printed with the name of its former owner above the pocket, Amiruddin carries a red Adidas school bag over his shoulder wherever he goes. Inside are notebooks he uses to keep track of the money spent and received. He seldom sits still. One moment he is helping load tents and blankets onto a boat. The next he is helping displaced people down the rickety gangplank of an arriving vessel.

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The half brothers celebrated a small success when a Canadian sponsor agreed to rent Sofyan’s boat for a month to deliver aid along the coast. The vessel was loaded with 30 tons of supplies and, sailing under a new captain, set out before dawn for the stricken town of Meulaboh. Within minutes, the craft hit a submerged boat that had sunk during the tsunami. The collision ripped a hole in the hull. Sofyan’s boat now sits by the riverbank, half submerged.

Extortion came next. Sofyan says an Indonesian soldier forced one boat captain to hand over half the money he had received from passengers. Sofyan worries that the boats will be the target of further demands as the military beefs up its presence in the province.

Amiruddin says he expects his family to live like refugees for at least a year. Irmawati does not want to move back to their old neighborhood, where she knows she would be haunted by memories of their missing sons.

“We call our neighborhood the ghost village,” he says. “It is impossible for living people to live here.”

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Amiruddin is considering building a simple house on land far from the sea in the village of his missing brother, Abu Bakar. His main worry is how he will afford schooling for Aulia, who is eager to get back to class.

After the two bodies were removed from his yard last week, Amiruddin went back to his house and salvaged some furniture. He encountered looters taking belongings from a neighbor’s house and angrily chased them away.

Then, he painted a message on his front wall in large letters: “Please do not disturb this house. The owner is still alive.”


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