Full extent of Indonesia disaster slowly revealed
Survivors huddle in clearings without food or shelter all along the tsunami-ravaged coast of Indonesia's Aceh province, and corpses float miles out to sea.
A week after giant waves swamped parts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, the water is only just beginning to drain away to reveal the full extent of the horrific destruction and yet more bodies to count.
"I've never seen anything like this. We've seen bodies 20 miles out to sea. You just cannot describe it," said Captain Larry Burt, commander of a helicopter wing on the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln parked off the coast.
"Above the water line, there are people standing there waving flags trying to signal us. There are so many, you just can't stop for all of them," he said after a mission down the west coast, which bore the brunt of the Dec. 26 quake and tsunami.
U.S. and Indonesian military helicopters landing in remote areas were swarmed by starving villagers as flight crews threw out boxes of bottled water and food.
The Indonesian military also said on Sunday it had killed three GAM -- the Free Aceh Movement -- separatists in north Aceh after they obstructed a humanitarian team, adding to claims from both sides accusing each other of initiating clashes this week.
"If there are attempts from GAM to disrupt the (aid) process that we're carrying out it is something I would regret. Although I have not received a detailed report," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters.
He said the focus of the operation was on "emergency relief and early rehabilitation programs...evacuation of survivors, search for bodies, and, God willing, possibly those who are still alive."
Walking the streets of Banda Aceh on Sunday, local clean-up crews and exhausted soldiers find it hard to know where to start, their efforts hampered by a steady drizzle.
Fires burn around the clock to clear areas around Banda Aceh's main parade ground of wooden debris. The soggy ground, about the size of five football fields, is stacked with rubbish, smashed vehicles and badly decomposed bodies.
As water drains from many districts of this city of more than 300,000 people, a nightmarish landscape of sludge, flattened homes and tangled corpses is exposed. The stench is overpowering.
"We need so much help," said Hayaddin, 51, a street vendor. "People say more waves will come."
Again during the long night, aftershocks from the massive quake that triggered the killer wall of water could be felt, sending panicked residents fleeing into the streets.
Zurhan, 23, a bulldozer driver, wearing a woolen jumper over his head to filter out some of the smell of death, stood in the middle of the parade ground shaking his head.
"It is so difficult to clean the ground. Everything is mixed together. I can't count how many bodies I have seen here. Look at the garbage. I'm sure there are many more there," he said.
As many as 30,000, of the roughly 80,000 Acehnese known to have died, perished in this city when the waves, triggered by the world's most powerful earthquake in 40 years, swept through.
Indonesia's Chief Social Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab visited Calang, 94 miles south of Banda Aceh, on Sunday and said the town would be abandoned after 70 percent of its population of 10,000 were killed by the tsunami.
"A TICKING TIME BOMB"
Substantial help has finally begun reaching refugees in some of the more
remote parts of Aceh and the U.S. military has arrived in force, parking a
flotilla of ships off the coast.
Hundreds of survivors gathered at Banda Aceh's airport to watch U.S. Sea Hawk helicopters, Singaporean Super Puma choppers and Australian and Indonesian Hercules transport planes.
"This is an enormous human tragedy. The biggest problem right now is water ... It's poisoned," Jorgen Poulsen, chief of the Danish Red Cross, said at a noodles and cooking oil distribution center outside the wreckage of a shopping center.
"We hope we can avoid cholera. The problem is we have already seen people vomiting in town."
A United Nations Children's Fund official said reports were coming in of children starting to die of pneumonia after inhaling contaminated water.
Many people are afraid of returning to their neighborhoods and cluster in makeshift refugee camps, where desperate survivors use megaphones to find relatives. Others said they had received some food aid, but distribution was chaotic.
Yet amid all the destruction were glimmers of hope. In a part of Banda Aceh less affected by the tsunami a market had opened, although food prices had doubled.
And local media reported 10 foreign tourists from Britain, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and Switzerland were found alive on a small island about 15 miles off the Aceh coast.