Despair Battles Hope at Tsunami Camp

When the call to prayer echoes through the relief camp, Rusli stirs, alone in his tent in the pre-dawn gloom. As he performs the morning Islamic rites, the farmer seeks solace from God for his wife and three children, swept away in the tsunami (search).

"I pray they have gone to heaven," said Rusli, 39. "I hope they have gone to paradise."

A few hours later, the men of the camp gather for work. Equipped with rubber gloves, boots and bottles of disinfectant, about 200 walk slowly to the nearby paddy fields where they spend hours retrieving bodies.

The Dec. 26 waves killed an estimated 4,000 of the 6,500 people who lived in the Lampaya area of western Sumatra (search). They were among more than 115,000 people killed on the Indonesian island, far more than in any other region. Another 1.4 million were left homeless, most of whom now live in crowded, muddy and chaotic camps.

That is not the case in Camp 85, 15 miles southwest of the devastated city of Banda Aceh (search). Under the leadership of a charismatic village head, this camp of 1,600 survivors has become a model in Indonesia because it's well-run, safe and relatively clean.

"The people living here are fortunate," said Mans Nyberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "The village leadership is there and they have managed to preserve their sense of community. They have been able to organize themselves while other camps are helter-skelter."

At night, the road to Camp 85 is mostly empty. The darkness hides piles of rubble that stretch for miles and flooded fields that resemble junkyards.

But the camp is impossible to miss. Bright lights illuminate hundreds of tents, and dozens of heavily armed Indonesian troops patrol near a herd of cows. Indonesian students offer new arrivals dinner and a bed.

New tents line the camp's edge. Further in, families live in shelters made of plastic bags, tin and coconut fronds. There is enough to eat and no disease outbreaks so far, but the mood is somber. The tsunami is the talk of the camp: tales of dramatic escapes, loved ones lost and a future filled with fear and uncertainty.

Nearly everyone has lost more than one relative, and in some cases their entire family. Hundreds of homes are little more than piles of rubble. The fishing and farming jobs that sustained them gone.

"We're all alone now," said Junaidi, a 36-year-old teacher from Lhongka village whose wife and brother died. Like many Indonesians, he uses just one name. "We just keep talking about the tsunami. It's still too hard to look for work. All we can think about is getting enough food."

As waves as high as coconut trees raced toward them, some survivors were able to grab some personal items as they fled: a driver's license, a ring.

But most tents have few signs of home. Instead, they are cluttered with symbols of the relief effort — beef from the Turks, Swiss-donated tents, T-shirts, pants and dresses from the Indonesian government.

"We've lost everything," said Buni Amamin, a 32-year-old fish vendor, whose tent intended for six overflows with more than a dozen relatives. A photo of his dead brother and a pair of his wife's earrings are his only keepsakes.

"We can't return because there is nothing left," said Amamin, who lost his mother, brother and 13 other relatives. "There are no trees. There is nothing. It's a desert."

Life here retains some of the leisurely routine and Islamic culture that many families wistfully recall. Most lived on less than $100 per month and few had such luxuries as a television or a car.

Days at the camp begin before dawn with the Muslim call to prayer. A collection of prayer mats under a plastic tarp serves as the mosque. Residents wash at a well using a bucket. Gradually, tents come alive with the crackling of wood fires, the smell of rice cooking and the clanging of breakfast dishes.

A truck carrying rice and hygiene kits from a French charity arrives at 9 a.m. American helicopters rumble overhead on relief flights to outlying villages. The Christian Children's Fund starts setting up a children's play center and offers to bring vitamins and vegetables.

"They're just existing on relief food," said Dr. Tom Kerkering, a health adviser for the Virginia-based group. "It's OK, but it's not what they are used to. There is only so much you can eat from a can."

Overseeing it all from his green tent is Burhanuddin Abdullah, a Lampaya village leader. A frail man with a gentle smile, Abdullah is credited with shepherding the first 40 people to the camp's high ground and welcoming survivors from three other villages whose homes were washed out to sea.

By organizing relief distribution, screening newcomers and refusing to play favorites, Abdullah, 54, has earned the loyalty of those in the camp. Under his guidance, camp decisions are made in a communal meeting after evening prayers.

Most residents are willing to accept their temporary life, says Abdullah, but that could quickly change if aid dries up and villages have not been rebuilt.

At the camp store, Razali Mannan hands out posters with a school photo of his missing 11-month- and 5-year-old sons. No one has seen them. He heads toward the next camp.

"I had a dream that my boy is alive," said Mannan, a civil servant. "He talks to me in my dream and says he's alive. I've got to keep looking."

Yunidar sits alone in her tent, weeping as she recalls how the fast-rising flood waters swept her infant son from her arms. She held her 7-year-old above her head, but the water kept rising until it took him, too. Her husband is also presumed dead.

"I have so many memories," she said. "We had all driven around Banda Aceh the day before the tsunami and we were going to take a family photo. But I told my husband he had better go pray, so we didn't. I am so sorry."

The rain starts mid-afternoon, as it does most days, drenching the camp in ankle-deep water and bringing life to a standstill.

Maria, a 43-year-old farmer, clutches a book of prayers for the dead and hides her head as thunder booms — reminded of the roar of the tsunami.

"Even if they build, I won't go back," Maria said of her coastal village. "I'm scared of the sea. I want to move far from the sea."