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Days of pictures and pain

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005.

My bed is made of hard wood with a thin layer of padding, breakfast consists of a few pieces of crackers and the toilet is basically a hole in the ground.

Tim (the reporter I work with) went off to a press conference in the morning. I decided to head to the main hospital in town—the only one with a working X-ray machine.

Almost all the patients there are tsunami victims or are there as a result of the resulting epidemics. The hospital is very small by Western standards, but, sadly, is the best available. As I entered the front door, I was greeted by a wall of photocopied printouts of the missing, put up by those who cling to hope no matter how dim. I wondered what the story was behind each of the faces:

What do you want to be when you grow up, little boy?

What's the last thing you thought of when you lay trapped beneath the power of the ocean. Did you pray to your God? Or did you ask why he's doing this to you?

Is your body still waiting to be found? Or are you that skull I saw peeking out of that broken body bag a couple of days ago?

I moved on into the hospital and was almost expecting somebody to stop me.

Somebody most certainly would have in the States.

But here in Indonesia, where anything goes and where it's obvious what the story is, I wasn't accosted once—only by curious stares. The emergency unit consists of two beds with a privy, right next to an administrative desk at the front entrance. An emergency team from Estonia runs the unit, and for the most part I was left alone to do my job.

A middle-aged woman lay on the treatment bed as the Estonian doctors worked to clean her wounds. "My leg hurts," she told me in Indonesian, which I promptly relayed to the doctors. She went on to tell me, quite matter-of-factly, that she lost her four children, her husband and her mother to the wave. "Ma'af"—sorry—I said rather sheepishly, certain that my apology couldn't have made her feel any better.

A Canadian nurse pointed out where the intensive care unit was, and on the way I passed rooms full of patients. Everyone whom I offered a smile to returned the favor. I must be an oddity to them: a tall Asian (heck, I'm even an oddity in the U.S.) with two of the most advanced bits of digital photographic equipment conjured by man, who speaks Indonesian, from Singapore but who works in the States.

Many patients had loved ones by their sides, who offered reassuring hands of comfort. Many of them are afflicted with aspiration pneumonia, which is caused by inhaling dirty seawater. Doctors tell me many died in the ICU in the initial phases, which pulled a shroud of depression over everyone. The Canadian nurse, Kirsten, told me she was so depressed once that she went out for a walk, only to bawl her eyes out when she came across a river where hundreds of bodies were being pulled out.

Just inside the main corridor, a young woman wept over the body of her mother, who'd succumbed to tetanus. Tetanus, a disease so easily preventable, runs rampant in the aftermath of the tsunami. Flies already have settled on the covered corpse, so eager to aid in the decomposition of a shell of a human being. I raised my camera and began taking pictures.

What can I say? "Excuse me, miss. Do you mind me taking pictures of you as you weep over the one who gave birth to you?" What can I say to convey to her that I mean no harm?

The image is already seared in my mind, but my job is to take the pictures. She's the only person I've seen in my time here who showed any emotion in response to the disaster. At times she would look at me, not belligerently, as she was obviously too weak from grief to be angry. But I felt as if she said to me, "How can you do this? How can you take pictures of me at my most vulnerable moment?"

I eventually was told to stop taking pictures. I begged for forgiveness (minta ma'af) and moved on. I didn't think those pictures were very good. I wasn't thinking too much about shutter speed and aperture, of forms and shapes and light. I wasn't thinking photography, I was feeling the moment. I will learn to put those two together and hopefully justify my intrusion a little better with better pictures.

The driver, Bowo, weaved in and out of traffic on the way home. Buses, vans, cars, relief trucks and mostly motorcycles all shared the road, not paying any particular attention to any rules. No one wears a seat belt, no one wears a helmet.

Wait ... there is a rule. Always let the military vehicles pass. And you know it's a military vehicle behind you from the ear-shattering horn and green-brown fatigues of its occupants. As I instinctively put the seat belt across my chest, I realized it didn't even work.

We planned to charter a boat to Calang (pronounced with a CH), which we heard was a coastal town of 9,000 left with 1,000 survivors. It's about eight hours by boat, about 100 miles away. We felt that this town best told the story of the destructiveness of the killer wave.

The Indonesian authorities had imposed restrictions on traveling to areas outside Banda Aceh, supposedly for our own good due to rebel incursions. So it would be best to head out as soon as possible before the restrictions became more harshly enforced.

As we were deep in discussion, the ground shook a little for a second, as if a freight train had passed by. My guide, Rully, turned to me and said, "Well, you've always wanted to know what an earthquake feels like, right?"

She stood up and mentioned something about getting ready to go outside if a big one did hit. I have been here only two days and experienced an earthquake. One can only imagine how much a way of life it is for the local folk. The constant reminder of the unpredictability of the land, that the earth beneath their feet lives with a pulse.

Thursday, Jan. 13

Today I met a monster. I have watched it only from afar the past couple of days, lapping against the decimated western shoreline of Sumatra. Today I breathed it, smelled it and tasted it.

The Indian Ocean.

It lay quiet, its appetite no doubt satisfied by the 200,000 plus lives it's taken so far. I stood on the prow of the 60-foot Indonesian fishing vessel Sentosa and watched as the ocean beckoned with its calm gentle waves. This can't be the same ocean that roared two weeks ago, can it?

I wondered as we started out on our eight-hour journey to Calang. We hoped to bring the plight of the small fishing town to the knowledge of the world. A town of 9,000 left with but a thousand. Entire families and neighborhoods wiped out, generations of wisdom and family stories washed out to sea.

As we headed south, we passed refugee vessels going the other way. We waved. They waved. On the left was a continuous line of mountains that kissed the low-lying clouds, with American Seahawk helicopters weaving in and out of them as they performed their vital mission.

One of the Sentosa's crew members, Sofian Abbas, came over slowly. A small wiry man, he had a look about him that suggested hard years spent at sea. Thirty-five years, he told me.

When the waves came, he was out at sea and watched in helpless horror as the sea to which he's dedicated so much of his life crashed down on his hometown of Ulee Lheue. The 51-year-old's wife, four of eight children and all five grandchildren were still missing. He didn't have any illusions that they could still be alive.

"Did you cry?" I asked him. Yes, he said. I didn't quite understand what he said next but made out the word "Allah." I assumed that he meant that what happened was God's will.

"Did you ever question why your God did this to you and your family?" I asked. No, he said, what belongs to God, God takes.

We approached Calang after it had turned dark, and the boat weaved occasionally to avoid smashing against dangerous reefs.

We're now anchored about one and a quarter miles out. The captain decided it was too dangerous to make the final leg in the pitch darkness, and will make landfall in the morning. I feel so sick from the rocking of the boat that I can continue no longer. More important work continues tomorrow.

Aboard the Sentosa, Indian Ocean, near Calang, Indonesia. GPS location: N 4 degrees 37 minutes, E 95 degrees 33 minutes.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Norman Ng is a Knight Ridder photographer. He speaks some Indonesian.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): tsunami+diary

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