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Tsunami survivors rely on faith, helping others to ease their pain

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Nearly two weeks after a tsunami and earthquake razed the northwestern shore of Sumatra, many survivors remain terrified by aftershocks, stunned by deaths, and, in many cases, hungry.

But they don't complain. Even those with ghastly injuries and staggering losses suffer with dignity and unshaken faith.

Like Teuku Zahria, who lost his brother and his home, survivors sustained themselves by helping others and praying to Allah. "I cried for three days after the tsunami came," said Zahria, 55. "Then I decided it is better to pitch in than to cry."

He found an unusual way to ease his pain: pulling dead bodies from the endless muck and debris left by the tsunami.

A devout Muslim, he considered this his duty to his community and the dead.

"If something happens to our brothers and sisters, we must help them," Zahria said as he wrapped three bodies in plastic sheets and placed them by the side of the road outside Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

He estimated that he had recovered 200 bodies this week.

He wore plastic flip-flops and did his work without gloves. His feet and hands were covered with black grime from rummaging around in the endless mud and debris.

"We can't run away from people who need us," Zahria said.

There is so much need, so much loss. Much like after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, signs have sprung up around Banda Aceh with pictures of the missing. One showed two men who were last seen enjoying a game of golf by the sea.

Chairul, a 4-year-old-girl, and Ainul, her 7-year-old brother, watched the tsunami suck their parents out to sea.

Chairul began life as an orphan buried to her neck in sand. Ainul began his stuck in the top of a palm tree. That's where the tsunami left them.

Now they live in a refugee camp. They keep asking when their mother and father will return.

But the survivors in the camp, each with a terrible story to tell, aren't bitter, said Nahabani, 52.

As with some other refugees, Nahabani's house survived. He came to the camp because there were too many corpses in his neighborhood and he was afraid of being alone.

The camp is just a cluster of tents on the side of a hill on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, but it's high enough to be spared from a tsunami.

When aftershocks come, refugees scream and run uphill, convinced that another tsunami will follow.

Almost all are Muslims; women wear headscarves, men wear skullcaps.

The earthquake and tsunami have deepened their belief in Allah.

"God is trying to test us," said Nahabani, who like many here goes by one name. "We must get closer to him. We must be strong. We must pray more. We must read the Quran more."

Before the tsunami, Nahabani prayed five times a day, as is mandatory for Muslims here in the Sunni region of Aceh.

Now, he kneels to pray 10 times a day.

Dedi, 21, offered a penitent's explanation for the disaster as he sifted through the rubble of his home: "God is angry," he said. "He can make the whole world drown."

Dedi's mother died in the tsunami, and he was trying to recover some of her jewelry. He found nothing.

"This probably happened because the Achenese people made some mistakes that made God angry," Dedi said. "But it is impossible to be angry with God."


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

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

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