Yusi, the Jakarta businessman who had gone looking for his employees in Banda Aceh, quickly befriended my translator and me on the plane ride up and insisted that we stay with him at the undamaged house his company occupied just blocks outside the zone of devastation. While dozens of newly arrived Western reporters slept side-by-side on the floor of a makeshift media center a few blocks away, I may have been the only journalist in Banda Aceh lucky enough to get my own room, sparse as it was. More important, he and his employees quickly offered me a tour of what was left of the local town, pointing out landmarks that were no longer standing.
The devastation was remarkable. The unclaimed bodies of men, women, and children, bloated and bloodied, dotted the streets and riverbeds. Row upon row of shops and homes sat in rubble for miles, one building indistinguishable from the next. A three-story government finance building was flattened like a pancake. Vending carts were snapped like twigs. Brightly colored fishing boats lay capsized in the streets, hundreds of yards from the shoreline.
Perhaps most powerful was the putrid stench of death and decay that was everywhere, forcing survivors to don surgical masks to ward off the odor as they walked the streets. At one mass graveyard near the airport on the outskirts of the city, home to some 6,000 bodies and counting, the stink was overpowering.
Before arriving, I had heard a lot about the ardent anti-American views held by many in the Aceh region, particularly here in an area where Muslim separatists had been waging civil war for decades. I was prepared for that hostility, but it never materialized. What I was not prepared for, as I roamed the streets of the ravaged region, was the site of countless villagers left homeless and hungry who were nonetheless offering Western relief workers, journalists, and soldiers a place to sleep, a bottle of water, or a plate of fresh noodles.
We inevitably offered them money for their kindness. Almost no one would take it. Even a villager who offered to take me for a ride down the coast on his motorcycle and "show me where the bodies are" (he made good on his promise in unforgettably grim fashion) refused to accept any money for gasoline, which was in very short supply.
All that the locals wanted, it seemed, was for the world to know what was happening in their remote island region. "Tell your President Bush we need help," implored one young woman at a refugee camp, as she gave me a list of painkillers, laxatives, and other needed medical supplies to forward to the U.S. authorities.
Saifuddin Abdurrahman, a leader of a local mosque in Banda Aceh, had helped set up a refugee camp on its grounds. As I toured the place, survivors told me the Indonesian government had let them down, so religious leaders had to step in and do what they could. A thousand survivors made do with two toilets among them, and they cooked vegetable soup for themselves in an oversized kettle over an open fire. Across an alley, bloody gauzes lay strewn on the ground at what amounted to a makeshift infirmary for the wounded survivors, and a wooden bench served as an operating table.
The night before I visited the infirmary, one man had died of an infection from wounds suffered in the tsunami. The doctor, a young Muslim woman who had been trying to catch a nap when I arrived, explained that she had no antibiotics with which to treat the man and, worse yet, no way to get him to a local hospital. "We need help, a lot of help," she said.
Abdurrahman did what he could. After one employee at the mosque lost his wife, a son, and his home to the tsunami and was unable to walk from his own wounds, Abdurrahman brought the man back to his home in what by local standards is a posh section of Banda Aceh. The man lay sprawled on a mattress in Abdurrahman's living room, his daughter tending to his wounds.
"I don't have the power to do anything," the man said. "I just pray to Allah. There is nothing else to do."