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Without women, small villages likely to go extinct after tsunamis

LAM KUTA, Indonesia—As the wall of water rushed in, Yusnadi, a 38-year-old elementary school teacher, grabbed his three children, put them on his motorcycle and sped off.

It was too late. A torrent carrying ripped-up trees slammed into them from behind. The water swept Yusnadi along for nearly two miles, but he survived. He never saw his children again, nor his wife, who was fleeing on foot.

All along the Indonesian coast, men like Yusnadi tell similar tales: harrowing accounts of survival that end with the discovery that their wives and children perished. But the stories aren't just personal tragedies.

Relief officials believe that because so few women and children survived, it will be all but impossible to reconstruct the villages that the tsunami washed away.

In Yusnadi's village of Lam Kuta, about 30 miles south of the city of Banda Aceh, only 48 of the 600 residents survived. Among the survivors, just four are women and none are children.

It's not clear why mostly men survived, other than the fact that they may be stronger and better swimmers.

Yusnadi, who has a thin scar running from his right ear to the middle of his forehead and a gauze bandage wrapped around his foot, explains the situation.

"It is difficult to go home since we don't have any families," he says. "All the men lost their wives. Now, we're just a group of individuals with nowhere to go."

The loss of population means that some villages will never come back, said Mahdi Effendy, the head of the Lhong subdistrict, which includes Lam Kuta.

Of the 28 villages in Lhong, only four escaped unscathed. Nearly half of the population of 11,812 is dead or presumed dead. By the time people are resettled, Effendy said he expects that Lhong will have shrunk to just 10 villages.

"There's nothing we can do about it," he said.

It's taken more than two weeks for a picture to emerge of the death and destruction in Indonesia, the country closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami.

With roads washed away and with few other ways to communicate, places such as Lam Kuta had no way to report the destruction they suffered. Often no one survived to make such a report.

A team from Knight Ridder reached this village aboard a boat on rough seas. There's no telephone service or electricity. A satellite phone can be used only sparingly because there's no way to recharge the batteries.

The water rushed four miles inland, until it ran into the hills and finally stopped. Seaside villages such as Lam Kuta were obliterated. Not even crumbling buildings remain, just the concrete foundations of homes.

Further inland, stronger houses withstood the torrent, while weaker ones were picked up and deposited in a pile of debris.

In one such village, Lam Geuriheu, residents returned on Wednesday to salvage lumber and pieces of corrugated metal roofs. They talked about rebuilding, if the government gives them the go-ahead.

In Lam Kuta, there's nothing to salvage, least of all a community.

A herd of two dozen cattle, grazing on a patch of grass not far from where a dead cow lay on its side, provides one of the few signs of life.

A lone man walks across the flattened landscape, a machete in hand to crack open fallen coconuts for a drink during his daily four-mile journey to pick up food at a government center and carry it back to his village.

Another man, Fajri Rahman, looks out vacantly in the distance to the sea, across the destruction that once was his village.

Then, he tears up, shielding his face with his black, gold-embroidered kopyah, the formal Indonesian headwear, and then his hand.

"I can't stand to see it," the 47-year-old government pharmacist said.

The white tile floors remain intact where the small house he built for his family used to stand. A short concrete driveway leading up a small ramp indicates where the garage was.

Gone are the walls. Gone is the furniture. And gone are his wife and two youngest children, his only sons, ages 6 and 10.

"This was my youngest son's," he said, breaking down again after finding a small pair of jeans, still caked with wet sand in the humid Indian Ocean climate.

He and his two teenage daughters were driving to Banda Aceh when the earthquake struck. They managed to escape to higher land when they saw the tsunami coming.

When his oldest daughter, Eria Rahmalina, 15, returned two days after the tsunami, she almost fainted, and Rahman had to support her. His younger daughter, Norul Qamariah, 13, told him she never wants to go back.

His eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. The pharmacist has been helping take care of the injured and sick survivors at the local clinic, where his 37-year-old wife, Yurlina, once worked as a mid-wife.

In time, he plans to move to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, where his sister lives, and try to raise his children there.

Rahman imagines that the surviving men of Lam Kuta also will settle elsewhere, some in the area, some in Banda Aceh and some in other cities where they have relatives.

"Maybe this place will be developed in the next two or three generations," he said, standing in the midst of his destroyed home, "but not for now."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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