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Police, reporters, clerks, trash collectors—human capital wiped out in Banda Aceh

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—The University of Syiah Kuala, with 18,000 students, was largely untouched by the tsunami that swept this city Dec. 26. Yet the university is staggering.

The biotechnology specialist and the horticulturist were killed in their homes that Sunday morning. The seed pathologist and the plant disease specialist are dead, too. The ecologist perished, as did the rural sociologist. Not to speak of other lecturers and some 20 staff members—50 in all.

And that's only the toll in the agronomy department. Other departments suffered just as much. "The human capital is so severely affected," said Islahuddin, the head of a graduate accounting program at the university. Like many Indonesians, he goes by one name.

The devastation goes so deep in Banda Aceh that descriptions of destroyed buildings and the death toll—98,553 people out of a city of 250,000, nearly 40 percent, are known to be dead or missing—don't do justice to the losses.

A sweeping number of institutions were affected to the core. A quarter of the city's police officers are gone. By official count, 584 teachers died. Garbage collectors disappeared by the dozens. The newspaper lost key editors and reporters.

Even as survivors take stock of their lives—often from refugee camps with only the clothes on their backs—they can't count on government clerks that are needed to replace documents such as national identity cards, birth certificates and land titles.

"Look, we're just pulling out the dead bodies," said H. Azwar Abubakar, the acting governor of Aceh province. "We know that there are such problems, but we can't think about them now."

He pulled out some papers. "Four out of 38 government buildings are totally ruined," he said. "The rest are damaged. Just about every office lost its first floor. No government office was saved from flooding or mud."

Some 300 workers from Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, are on loan to get Banda Aceh's City Hall back on its feet, he said. The fire department has received three trucks from other regions. Hundreds of loaner cops are helping to keep the peace, he added.

Much is still unknown; there's been no block-by-block assessment of damage.

"Nobody has really had a chance to count the number of houses destroyed. The destruction is too enormous," Abubakar said.

The city wasn't in great shape even before the disaster. Aceh's governor is in jail on corruption charges, and Abubakar, his deputy, is running the city and surrounding province. The mayor, Zulkarnain, is also up on corruption charges and suspended from office.

Now, the city's a wreck. The governor's office has been abandoned. Mounds of twisted tin roofing, broken lumber, crushed cars and debris lie in piles along the streets. A hospital, the main newspaper, the harbor, hundreds of fishing boats, row upon row of streets, all are in utter ruin.

Police Officer Abdul Mutholib surveyed the wreckage that's provincial police headquarters, once the base for 800 officers. Now only a few officers toil pulling wheelbarrows of mud from offices. The rest are out collecting bodies and clearing streets.

"People are still traumatized by all the bodies they've found," Mutholib said.

Some 200 officers are thought to have perished in the tsunami. In part, that's because the kindly chief sent the officers home to check on their families and homes after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake rattled the area. Half an hour later, the tsunami, triggered by the quake, began to strike.

"There are six police-housing compounds. Only one survived. The rest are flattened," Mutholib said.

Mutholib didn't go home, but he wasn't safe, either. The water rushed in from several sides of the U-shaped police headquarters. The river of lumber, trees, cars and debris was more terrifying than the amateur video footage aired around the world conveys, he said.

"It was even worse than on television because it came from two sides," he said. "It had all kinds of things in it, like cars and dead bodies."

Mutholib floated up to the level of the second floor and felt a hand grasp his and pull him onto a balcony.

The price was great for Banda Aceh's main newspaper, Serambi Indonesia. Political editor Nurdin Hasan said 60 staff members died, including nine journalists.

Two senior editors, the foreign and metro editors, and several reporters were washed away with their homes. The newspaper building is still standing but gutted. It took five days for the surviving journalists to find temporary rooms and seven computers to share and start publishing again.

As in many devastated institutions, the newspaper received reinforcements.

"The regional papers sent journalists to back us up," Hasan said, noting that 10 had come from around Indonesia. Some staff members even double as street vendors.

Employees still are coping with their own huge losses.

"My friend here, the photographer, lost two children and his mother but he can work. The Acehnese can accept this," Hasan said.

Some parts of city government were simply destroyed, making life tougher for residents who lost important documents and must deal with a collapsed government for replacements.

"All my documents are lost: my birth certificate, my diploma," said Mohammed Nizar, adding that even the deed to his house is gone.

He was arriving at a bank to see if he could still get money out of an account.

A few blocks away, 20-year-old Maidi Suranta gathered with scores of other applicants to see if he could join the police force. He, too, lost all his documents when his family's home washed away, and hoped that it wouldn't matter.

Hasan, the newspaper editor, said Banda Aceh would revive, but that would take time. "The government says it needs five to 10 years," he said.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI+RUINEDCITY

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