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In tsunami-ravaged area, volunteers retrieving bodies soldier on

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Every night, Zulkarnain bin Musa sees dead bodies walking toward him in his dreams.

When he wakes, the 19-year-old college student dons his rubber boots and gloves and sets out, as he did again on Sunday, with a team of volunteers to pull dozens of bodies out of the rubble left by the tsunami three weeks ago.

The work is physically exhausting, emotionally tough and seemingly without end. Some volunteers report feeling itchy, they think from dredging around in putrid pools of water. But day after day, for more than two weeks now, they have soldiered on.

About 50,000 bodies have been found in and around Banda Aceh, the provincial capital that bore the brunt of the tsunami's wrath. Some 2,500 more are still being found every day.

"Physically, we are getting weak," said Daryanto Manik, 27, who has sore feet and sore upper arms. "We really want to keep at it, but how long we can will depend on our physical condition."

Vast areas of the obliterated suburbs of Banda Aceh have yet to be searched. About 100 volunteers, organized by the Indonesian Red Cross, fanned out across the desolate remains of one suburb, Lam Jabat, on Sunday, over one mile inland from the sea.

Most of the houses are gone, and much of the area remains inundated by huge pools of water. Walking out on debris and the foundations of houses that have lost their walls, the volunteers scanned the landscape for corpses.

Many said they are unfazed by the gruesome work. They are trained, coming from Red Cross emergency response teams, many from universities across the nation.

For some, seeing death up close is nothing new. In Aceh, a province long riven by a separatist conflict, the volunteers have been called on before to haul out bodies—sometimes beheaded or mutilated—of rebels, soldiers or civilians caught up in the strife.

Still, Barmani, a 25-year-old civil engineering student from Aceh, admits to feeling sad at times.

"Sometimes, I sit alone and contemplate what has happened here," said Barmani, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

The bodies are hard to pick out amid the debris.

What appears to be just a clump of red cloth with a floral pattern turns out on closer inspection to have a bare leg sticking out of it. It's the lower body of a diminutive woman, buried in the mud under a chunk of concrete. It takes several minutes for the volunteers to heave the concrete out and get to the body.

The work is getting harder, they say, because many of the remaining bodies are trapped under rubble.

The victim appeared to have her hands above the head, perhaps trying to protect herself from falling concrete in the earthquake that preceded the tsunami. But just how she died will never be known for sure.

The volunteers zip the body into a blue body bag and leave it by the side of the road, where it will be picked up and taken to a mass grave for an anonymous burial. By noon, two-dozen more bodies line the route. Countless more remain to be found.

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(Moritsugu is a special correspondent.)

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

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

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