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Burgeoning survivor camps full of lost souls

Sydney Morning Herald - January 5, 2005

Matthew Moore, Banda Aceh – They call them refugee camps, but the scores of little plastic tent settlements that have sprung up across Aceh are unlike the refugee camps that have long been part of this war-torn province.

Aceh's refugee camps in the past have been home to whole families fleeing the army's war with separatists, but these settlements are more like survivor camps, full of shattered souls who have often lost everyone close to them.

All camps seem to have residents like Abu Bakar Ishak, 44, who used to live in a house about a kilometre from the sea in Banda Aceh and now lives under an overhang on the building that once housed the head office of the Ministry of Social Affairs.

He was at work with his wife in the market selling Cendol, a sweet traditional drink, and had just been home to check on his five children when the tsunami struck.

"On the way back to the market I heard people screaming to run because the water was coming and I tried to go back on my motorbike to save my children but I could not."

His house and all five children were swept to oblivion and now he is alone in the camp. "We are singles here," he said, pointing to the cluster of mainly men who gathered around him to share their awful stories.

Muhammad Diah was just one of the throng to confirm their new status. "I lost my wife and three children," he said with that look of blank dumb shock you see in so many of the faces in the camps. He too survived because he was selling in the market while his family was at home in their house closer to the coast.

Torres Inigo, a Spanish refugee worker with Action Against Hunger, has been visiting the camps and said the problems for the Acehnese refugees had been exacerbated because so many had lost most of their families as well as their houses.

They had lost their relatives to grieve with. "The coping reaction that is normally generated in an emergency is not available here. We are very concerned."

Estimates of refugee numbers range from 300,000 to 1 million, many of them in camps in unsuitable areas that will have to move soon to avoid disease sweeping through their occupants. Camps are dotted beside the road, near the airport and in the grounds of office buildings that did not collapse in the earthquake.

Next to Mr Ishak's sleeping mat is Rohani, who numbly tried to describe how she had lost her only son, Iwan, 11. She had left him with relatives at home in Meulaboh on the west coast while she visited friends in Banda Aceh, and had since heard they were all dead.

She brushed at her eyes but hardly had tears left to shed as she pulled from her wallet her only photo of the smiling child. She wanted to go home to Meulaboh but did not know how to get there and was unable to comprehend that the town so close to the epicentre of the earthquake had mostly disappeared. Now that her house and little business were destroyed she had no idea how she would survive.

She and the 1500 others living in her camp are surviving thanks to food, clothing and medicines donated by Indonesian and foreign aid groups. A water system has been installed, but it is only clean enough for washing. There is a shortage of kerosene, which means cooking is hard, and the sacks of donated rice are largely unopened. As more aid arrives, the daily challenge to survive will fade. Fixing these broken lives will be a lot harder.