Tsunami Eyewitness Account by Nat Geo Photographer

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The horror of this place reminds me of something from a biblical disaster story or the sketches of Hieronymus Bosch [a painter of monstrous scenes of hell]. Everywhere I go I have to be careful I don't step on a corpse.

The magnitude of this thing is that this goes on for hundreds of miles in both directions. In one area some 10 square miles [25 square kilometers] of the city was completely flattened. It is feared that something like 30,000 bodies are still in there.

The government has confirmed 95,000 dead and 77,000 missing. They are likely soon to convert that 77,000 missing into confirmed dead.

Are the emergency supplies of food and medicine getting through to the people?

Food and medical aid is arriving, and it is getting to the survivors. An infrastructure is being set up here in Banda Aceh—but the needs are huge. We still see a lot of people with broken bones that have not received treatment. We see people with deep lacerations that have been covered with a dirty rag.

The U.S. military works here from dawn to dusk, and cruise ships have arrived from Singapore with relief workers and supplies. People are very, very appreciative that we are here. They appreciate America's help. People come up to me all the time to say thanks, give me hug, or start crying in appreciation. The U.S. military is being well received.

It's going to be interesting to see how the massive amount of money raised in the U.S. and other countries will translate into help on the ground. The bottleneck is a challenge. So many people are here and so much assistance is coming in. Getting it out to all the outlying places and all the people who need it is a problem.

Picking up the bodies is a priority. Then the medical assistance needs to move beyond the most urgent triage to treating broken limbs and deep wounds. People are dying because they are unable to get this basic medical attention.

A huge number of people are displaced. The challenge is to stabilize their communities and set up new places for them to live.

Is the truce between the Indonesian government and separatists holding?

Politics has started to resurface. There was a firefight here two days ago between the Indonesian military and the separatists. I can't be too specific right now, because there are people listening to me. The rehabilitation effort is becoming politicized. We have heard reports that the separatists have hijacked relief workers and kidnapped doctors to look after only their own people. Many foreign relief workers are becoming scared for their own safety.

Right now things are stable, but there's no way of knowing what may happen. This place has been cut off from the world for a long time, and now they have journalists from everywhere.

How are the survivors holding up?

The survivors are still numb and seemingly emotionless. They show no emotion in their eyes. They're still in shock. Thousands of people who fled into the hills for safety are streaming back every day. Word is out that there is food and medical help here.

But it remains an ordeal for them to come near the ocean. People are still traumatized. Many will not go down to the beach. One driver I hired absolutely refused to go down to the beach. They're terrified of the ocean.

Many people here are aware of the money that has been pledged for relief, not only for medical care but for rebuilding. Entire cities need to be rebuilt. Believe it or not, the only buildings still standing in some places are the mosques. This has added to the mythology that is already growing about the tsunami. Allah's places survived, therefore Allah is great, the people are saying.

There are also interesting spiritual stories. There is an island just south of Banda Aceh called Simeulue, where apparently the people had been telling stories about a day when the big waves would come and they would have to go up to the hills. It's part of their folklore, passed down the generations.

When the earthquake happened the elders on the island said the story was coming true and everyone was told to go into the hills. They reported 100 percent survival.

People are spooked by all the bodies and the dead. They believe a lot of spirits are flying around. There is a sense of urgency that the dead must be buried, not only for health reasons but also for spiritual reasons and to be able to start to get beyond the trauma.

There's an incredible array of survivors and some amazing stories. I talked to one man today who told me how he and his wife were on the beach when the tsunami came. They saw the water approaching. A New Zealander near them was on a jet ski and he told them to get on to his jet ski, so they could zoom up a river.

They made it far enough to be able to get up into the hills, from where they watched the tsunami. Four of their children and something like five grandchildren were lost to the tsunami. You could probably hear two dozen stories like that every day.

One relief worker I have met has lost something like 200 relatives. Only about a 100 people in a village of 3,000 people survived. And it goes on and on like this.

I'm still trying to grasp that something like 30,000 people in a village attached to Banda Aceh disappeared. Not one building was left standing. It is absolutely unbelievable.

A lot of looting is going on. The military is not very concerned about it. People are picking through the debris and we see many people carrying off household goods. Trucks have been coming in and towing off cars. Motorcycles are loaded up with stereos and other valuables.

There are many children here, many without adults to care for them. The government is obviously concerned that the children could be carried off for the sex trade in Thailand, but I have not seen any roadblocks so I don't know if this is happening and whether anyone is stopping it.

Child trafficking is a big issue in this part of the world. There are thousands and thousands of children here without parents.

Not everything is bleak. Each day I come across vignettes of hope. People are helping one another and there is a great spirit of generosity. Many local people have remarked that the tragedy has brought the people together. It is amazing and touching to see.

We're all so impressed by the fortitude and strength of the people who went through this. I have seen the same thing in Bosnia and Rwanda. The human spirit is such that in the worst moments, it brings out the best in people.

How do you get around?

I've rented a motorcycle. Many bridges are down, so I strap the motorcycle to a raft and pay someone to ferry me across. In this way I have been able to travel as far as 25 miles [40 kilometers] south. Tomorrow I will try to visit an area where I understand a great many bodies are still lying around. The authorities and relief teams have still to make a basic assessment of the situation there.

What's going on beyond the tsunami flood line?

Banda Aceh was a fairly large city, and about a third of it was impacted by the tsunami. The remaining two-thirds is where people survived and where life is trying to get back to normal.

As you drive around here, you get to places where you realize, That was where the flood ended. The tsunami came in as a huge wall of water that didn't break as a wave for something like three-quarters of a mile [1.2 kilometers].

I saw a place where the high-water mark was 80 feet [24 meters] high on the side of a hill. Probably the intensity of the water was such that it slapped up against the hill. That was about half a mile [800 meters] inland. There are places here where the water came in as far as five miles [eight kilometers].

Beyond the flood line, life is normal—but the people are trying to cope with the refugees. Soccer fields, for example, are crammed with people in makeshift camps. There is huge concern that there might be outbreaks of cholera or measles. A massive inoculation program is underway.

It's monsoon season, and it rains for a couple of hours every day. That encourages mosquitoes and raises the risk of dengue fever and other diseases. But as of today nothing serious seems to have broken out.

We've been going through a lot of aftershocks. What people elsewhere would consider major earthquakes happen here all the time now. Magnitude 6 aftershocks wake us up at night, making everyone rush outside.

The ocean seems so near to where the survivors are, because where there used to be a beach and many buildings is now open. When we had a major rainstorm the other day bodies started to float by.

People are still so traumatized—they remain acutely aware that the ocean is close. Whereas before December 26 the ocean was their friend and livelihood, now they are terrified by it.

Some of the debris and damage left by the tsunami is almost comical. Huge boats are stranded far from the ocean, some of them upside down. It adds to the surrealism of this place.

Tsunami in Southeast Asia: Full Coverage
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