Reporter's Notebook: 11 Days in Hell

What a way to start a New Year. After the last bloody year it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Saturday, Jan. 1

My cameraman, Barnaby, and I land in Banda Aceh (search), the hub of relief operations in northern Indonesia, the place hardest hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami (search) in all of Asia.

Nighttime has arrived and it’s raining. Crowds and soldiers swarm around. It looks like something right out of the Mel Gibson-Sigourney Weaver movie “Year of Living Dangerously,” the one set in 1960’s Indonesia. Except that film was about political upheaval. This one is about the land and sea “upheaval.”

It’s hard to believe 36 hours before I was having a nice relaxing holiday lunch with my wife’s family in the hills of southern Italy. Then the call came. End of pasta and red wine. Onto living hell.

I walk up to a group of guys huddled around some technical gear on the edge of the runway thinking they might be part of the media contingent with a satellite uplink we might use. “No,” one fellow replies, “We’re the control tower for the airport.” Oh. Never mind.

After wrestling through the crowd and trying to make sure a dozen or so of our equipment boxes find their way into two vans, we’re off. That’s when the smell first hits us. I’d experienced it before, during the Balkan wars, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The odor of rotting human flesh was never so strong and all-pervasive. It’s everywhere and it flows through your lungs and sinks right into your gut. We close the windows of the van.

We drive to Banda Aceh’s government complex, a couple of new-ish buildings in an area of the city not hit by the tsunami that the media are using as a base of operations.

It seems like the entire world press has descended on the place, ready to chronicle what all admit is some of the worst things they’d ever experienced. We get “advice” about where to go the next day to see the worst of it. It’s been six days since the disaster hit. I can’t believe it’s as bad as they say it is. I’d soon find out — no advice was needed.

Sunday, Jan. 2

Morning comes and we pile into a van full of young volunteers from the Indonesian Red Cross (search). I soon learn their mission is not about saving people anymore; they are “salvaging” bodies.

We roll up to a mosque not far from what had turned into a wicked coast. The guys, prepped with face masks, gloves and boots trudge through black, thick muck filled with indescribable stuff and venture into the building. I’m told 150 people were found dead inside the place. They were seeking shelter. Maybe they had a chance for a few prayers. All they found was a place to die.

There are about 20 bodies left. The guys put them into black plastic “garbage-liner” type bags and carry them out. It’s all like some bad funeral procession except there’s no burial. They just line the bags – some big (adults), some small (kids) — along the side of the side of the road and leave them for future retrieval. After they do this job they take a break, smoking cigarettes to kill the smell and joking to break the mood.

Our next stop is a quarter of downtown Banda Aceh near the river running through this port city. In normal times, it’s full of cafes, open food markets and hotels. Now it’s a place of desolation. All the stalls and stands were sheared away by the force of the tsunami, as are walls of hotels revealing rooms inside. Some still have furniture in place.

A fishing trawler about 60-feet-long and 20-feet-tall sits in the parking lot of one hotel. The tsunami’s force moved it 400 yards across land from its dock like some rubber ducky in a kid’s bathtub.

And then there are more bodies. Another 20 bagged corpses pulled from the wreckage and set down where folks used to sip tea and eat local shrimp and fish.

From time to time Indonesian army officers and policemen stop in front of the trawler to have their picture taken with this oddity. It’s the first time it dawns on me. What the !@#$% are these guys doing playing disaster tourists when one week after the event there are still the remains of thousands of Indonesians trapped in the rubble of this town?

But nothing could prepare me for the bridge spanning that city’s main river.

We drive up to it and see a lot of people looking out over the railing. We join them. You know those scenes of rivers just outside lumber mills in the Canadian Rockies where there are thousands of logs afloat waiting to be sawed up? Well that’s what I was reminded of looking at this river. Except here in Banda Aceh, the logs are bodies. Hundreds of them.

Somehow they were caught by the current of the river and jammed up against the pylons of the bridge. Some are clothed. Some aren’t. Some are face-up. Some face-down. All are bloated from exposure to the elements for days.

On the riverside, Indonesian soldiers use a heavy construction backhoe to scoop the bodies out of the river and drop them on the shore. Sometimes a leg or an arm or a head is sticking out of the shovel. Sometimes a body falls out only for the soldiers to scramble down the bank and pick up the stray corpse.

They’re all then stuffed into bags for later pick-up. It’s then I realize any kind of proper accounting of how many had died, when they had died and who they were was just a sad pathetic joke. Were 100 dead Achinese found here? Two hundred? A thousand? No one’s keeping the deadly score.

Monday, Jan. 3

We decide to venture into the worst-hit side of Banda Aceh, the one exposed to the sea. This area took the full brunt of first the earthquake off-shore and then the swells of tsunami-pushed water.

One analogy has been made so much it is now a well-worn cliché. Except it’s true. The place looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. All that’s left is a wasteland of rubble, some skeletons of buildings and little bits of life of what once was — clothes, plastic picnic chairs, pots and pans, and, oh, yes, more bodies.

There are also survivors, picking their way through the debris, trying to make some sense of it all. This is my first real chance to talk to some of the Achinese and I am utterly blown away by their stoic, determined sense of pride and their calm, gentle demeanor.

One young pretty woman in her late 20s approaches me. Unprompted, she tells me in her broken English that her son and daughter are dead and buried under the rubble of what was her house about 300 yards away. In the absence of any formal government recovery efforts, young squads of university students are working in the area assisting in the retrieval of the remains.

Some of them help this woman. She doesn’t cry. She reports on the proceedings calmly like its some sort of news bulletin.

Another family we come across digs through the remains of their house. They’re not coming up with bodies, just bits and pieces of domestic items that might be used in their future life. The human damage is already done.

The grandmother of the group points to a teen-aged boy and tells me his mother and father were killed. The boy smiles and shakes my hand. He’s wearing a Nike basketball T-shirt. We express our condolences and move on.

Then we come across a man wearing what looks like a baseball batting helmet. I suppose he’s using it to protect himself as he burrows beneath the concrete looking for his family. Again, unprompted, he explains to me his wife and daughter are under the rubble. They were in the home when the waves came crashing down. He was on a nearby bridge, watched it all and couldn’t make it to them to save them.

He thanked me (in his eyes, I’m the United States) for helping his country. He said this was a time for Christians and Muslims to come together. Indonesia is predominately Muslim, the most populous Islamic country in the world.

Think about this for a moment. This guy has just lost his family and everything he owns and he’s discussing with me ways to re-dress the scrambled state of affairs the world now finds itself in. But then his personal loss catches up with him and the 40-something man starts to cry like a baby. All I do is hold him by the shoulders and try to comfort. I feel as helpless as he is.

Again, I leave the scene absolutely floored by the dignity of the inhabitants of this “developing” country. And I can imagine people in much more “developed” countries acting in a much more rash way.

One wonders why they were chosen to be caught up in this killing, mulching mayhem. And one also is left to ponder where is their country’s government when they need it? Reports of corruption, ineptitude and discrimination against this part of Indonesia, with a long tradition of independent-thinking, come to mind.

Tuesday, Jan. 4

The United States is one of many nations pitching in for a chaotic but busy relief effort. The main push these days is flying Navy helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln (search) aircraft carrier off the Indonesian coast to Banda Aceh, load them up with relief supplies and then deliver them to isolated villages back along that battered coastline.

We go along on one mission to a town called Calang about 80 miles away where some say five-sixth’s of the population was wiped out. The flight down gave me a chance to see the coastline up-close. There was nothing there except for outlines of foundations of houses and etchings of a road that was once a life-line for these people.

It seems like the whole seaside area about a half-mile inland was scrubbed clean of any human existence. That Sunday morning, anybody in the houses were quickly sucked out into the Indian Ocean.

But slightly further inland, on slightly higher ground, there are houses intact and that’s who these sailors have come to help. The two choppers swoop around what was left of Calang and jostle for a landing position on a thin stretch of macadam road with mud and muck on either side.

The people still living in the village quickly ran towards the helicopters but knew to stand at a distance. They crouch down, looking like a pack of runners waiting for the starting pistol of a race. This race is for their lives.

When the sailors gave the sign for these people to move, they did, frantically grabbing any box of water or food or medicine they could get.

They were of all ages. An elderly woman who had to be in her late 70’s jostles a box of aid on her back.

In all the chaos one young kid stands out and I know I’ll always remember him. I look at him and wave. He pauses for a moment in his fight for survival, stands up, gives me the biggest toothiest grin. And then he dives back into the melee.

As the two choppers leave (they were only on the ground for ten minutes) one of the sailors on board gives the thumbs-up to the crowd below. The grateful survivors of all the horror of recent days wave back and cheer.

After personally experiencing in my recent years in the field, real hatred for the United States – my country — those cheers were like a big whoosh of fresh air blowing through the chopper and my mind.

We can be liked. We can do good. We can be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, Jan. 5

The disaster zone of Aceh — the piece of real estate hardest-hit by the tsunami in all of southeast Asia — has become a must-stop for visiting politicians. Today there are two special VIP’s: Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) and Florida Governor and presidential brother Jeb Bush (search).

On a tour of the battered Indonesian coast, they shake hands and exchange words with the already drained and bedraggled relief workers (Sec. Powell: “Stay hydrated!”; Gov. Bush: “Anybody else here from Florida?”).

Then I get the chance to speak with Bush. He’s quite likeable, unassuming and thoughtful. Yes, he says, he saw devastation before in his own hurricane-whipped state but nothing like this. I ask him what he would tell his brother when he got back home. He says immediate relief is important, but long-range recovery and economic redevelopment of this battered land is key for these peoples’ future.

The bottom line — Stay engaged, don’t settle for quick fixes. In a time of quick news cycles I can already imagine the world’s attention ready to slip away.

After the visit with the politicians, my cameraman Barnaby and I stop off at what is becoming the depository for the dead of Banda Aceh. Nothing more appalling and haphazard can be imagined. Just off the side of the airport road, not even discretely set back from the passing traffic, construction equipment digs huge holes. Open-bed truck after open-bed truck arrive at the scene, each piled high with plastic bags full of corpses.

The young guys on the trucks hurl the bodies into the holes to be later covered with dirt. Forget about identification or funeral rites. We don’t even see any lime or other chemical spread inside the ditches to prevent the spread of disease.

A system is in place so highway traffic would have to slow down, drive around the detour made for the body disposal, take a good deep breath of the buried bodies, and drive on. Horrible.

Thursday, Jan. 6

Living conditions at the government complex where we’re staying are appalling. Garbage left by the media and non-governmental organizations is piling high. The Asian-style bathrooms (with their challenging squat design) are getting clogged up with overuse. And the place seems especially prone to being the scene of some new disaster.

This morning, an aftershock measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale hits. We’re inside one the buildings and hear a loud crack amid the girders supporting the ceiling. The man we’re talking with, who experienced the original earthquake and the tsunami first hand, starts babbling like a frightened child, grabs us and pulls us out of the building. Others ran too.

There was no damage this time. But clearly there is a lot of mental damage left inside the heads of the people of this region. Damage that will take a long, long time to repair — if it ever does.

Our friend brings us to our new base of operations, a four-bedroom bungalow in a leafy neighborhood of Banda Aceh, untouched by the tsunami. It wouldn’t look out of place in some place like West Hollywood, except for the imposing mosque across the street.

That is one of the remarkable things about this disaster. On one side of the city, life and all traces of humanity have been swept away in a vortex of natural catastrophe. On the other side, folks sell Cokes and cookies from sidewalk shops. Others prune their gardens.

But even here, the disaster is never far away.

The mosque is home to children orphaned by the disaster. And the addition of night-time television live shots on the front porch of the house attracts curiosity-seekers, who watch patiently as the transmission goes back to the States. They then explain how they lost their brother, or their home, or their place of work. No hand-out for help. They just want to share with us their situation.

Friday, Jan. 7

It’s the day of prayer for Muslims around the world. The mosque in Banda Aceh near our house broadcasts the imam’s sermon via loudspeaker for the whole neighborhood to hear. We don’t have our Achinese translator with us but we keep hearing the word “America” pop up in the lengthy oration.

Having been conditioned to hear some very ugly things said about America in mosques around the world, we figure once again we’re getting a roasting from a Muslim bully pulpit.

Out of curiosity, we go over to the Imam after his sermon and ask him what it was all about. We learn just about the whole thing was in praise of what Americans were doing in the country and specifically for the people of Aceh. The imam even quotes a line for us: “For every gift America gives us, we have to repay America a thousand times over with kindness.” Huh?

It gets better. We need a little grassroots confirmation of this sentiment, so we set out for the main market area of the city and ask folks what THEY thought of the U.S. Some speak in English, nearly everyone has an opinion. And all are positive about the U.S. contribution to international aid efforts.

Some are discerning with their analysis. One doesn’t care for our policy in Iraq. Another thinks we stereotype Muslims too readily in a negative fashion. But another young man speaks like he just got off the phone with White House political master Karl Rove: “I think helping the people of Aceh,” he proclaims, “would be a good way to illustrate to the people of Indonesia that you care about helping others.”

And yet another woman lets it all hang out. No shilly-shallying for her. What did she think of Americans? “Nice! Friendly! Good!” When I note to her that some in Indonesia don’t care for some of America’s policies, she barks back: “Don’t believe them! They’re wrong.” We later find out the woman lost 15 members of her extended family in the tsunami.

To get one more perspective, we stop by and talked to Dennis Heffernan, a Jakarta-based American political consultant in town. He reminds me about a Pew Survey (search) done around the Iraq war that found a measly 17 percent of Indonesians polled approved of America. Now he was sure that number would be considerably changed.

“When I used to meet people here I would jokingly introduce myself as ‘The Great Satan,’” Heffernan says. “Now they call me ‘The Great Angel.’”

Saturday, Jan. 8

The weather here is bad, really bad. It’s hot (it seems like upper 90’s) and humid and it rains hard for periods of time every day. The folks here say it’s the end of the rainy season. Doesn’t seem like the end to me.

That’s bad news for the recovery efforts. Pools of stagnant water, especially water in which bodies are floating or where excrement is dumped, breeds disease. Without new supplies of fresh water the relief teams warn of a second wave of deaths from disease. I took a rinse one day with tap water. Then a medical professional who is staying with us mentioned that 50 percent of the water in the city was contaminated. I start a new routine of showering using liters of bottled water.

Air-borne disease too is a real concern and everybody takes it seriously. The common attire now for all moving around the city is one, if not two or more, face masks. They’re especially necessary moving past any pile of crushed buildings and the bodies beneath the rubble.

An official from the Indonesian Army brags to me they had disposed of all “visible” bodies from Banda Aceh. I’m no expert but it seems the ones buried under three or four feet of rubble can present just as much of a disease threat. It just seems like there should be more soldiers and police doing more things and doing them faster.

But back to the rain. It’s also slowing down relief efforts, turning landing areas for helicopters into dangerous marshes and canceling flights. We were supposed to fly out on this day to check out the next phase of the U.S. military response. That will have to wait.

Sunday Jan. 9

The helicopters are flying today and we get whisked out to the USS Bonhomme Richard (search). On board the amphibious assault ship, which looks like a small aircraft carrier, there are some 3,000 Marines and sailors.

On the way, we get another glimpse of the coastline of death. Along the Banda Aceh shore, an estimated 38,000 people died (that’s the identified dead) and another 38,000 could still be left under the rubble. That’s close to 80,000 in one city alone. From the look of desolation below, it’s not hard to believe.

We fly down the coast to the center of attention for the new wave of U.S. help, the town of Meulaboh where another 50,000 are believed dead, 80 percent of the buildings are destroyed or damaged and where all links with the outside world had been cut off.

Meulaboh is already getting attention. The Indonesian military is there. Singapore has made it its pet project. Spanish and French aid workers are doing their part.

An interesting aside here: the Spaniards and the French got to the city thanks to the logistical help of U.S. forces. Helicopters flew in doctors and emergency staff who otherwise would have been stranded.

These guys were the Americans’ political adversaries on the Iraq war front. Now, as Marine Col. Greenwood, commander of 15th Marine Expeditonary Unit says: “I even like french fries.”

And then there’s the Communist Chinese contingent setting up their medical tent next to the USAID base. This is a Coalition of the REALLY Willing.

But onboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, it’s America through and through. NFL games are piped in on the in-house TV and hot dogs and pizza are served for dinner (which, I must admit after a week of catch-as-catch-can eating was a welcome bit of home). All of this, of course, is 10 sea miles away from disaster and destitution. It’s a bit jarring.

Monday, Jan. 10

This is it. The Marines are landing. It’s the first “surface ship” to be used in immediate relief efforts, though it’s really a landing craft hovering over the sea so it can put down in places that most ships can’t.

It’s especially important now that most of the docks and ports along the battered western coast are wiped out and the beaches are full of obstructions. This will also be the biggest one-time delivery of aid. Helicopters are good but you just can’t get enough stuff into them.

This “L-CAC” today will bring in 30 pallets of water and food to the people of Meulaboh.

But of the 1,800 Marines on board the Bonhomme Richard “mother ship” very few are involved in this operation. Also left back on the ship are more supplies and all sorts of vehicles that could help with distribution and clearing away the destruction.

But the Indonesians remain paranoid about ceding too much of the relief operation to outside nations — especially Americans. They also claim there are security concerns relating to an ongoing independence movement in the province and among Islamist radicals.

The Marines drive us around the battered town of Meulaboh for a brief tour but they do it in Mercedes jeeps. There’s not a Humvee in sight.

On the record, U.S. military officers say cooperation with the Indonesians is good and the low number of U.S. troops on shore means the shattered infrastructure of the place is not over-taxed. But they say it’s that very infrastructure the Americans could help build up.

“They want us to clear away dead bodies,” one officer confides to me. “We don’t do dead bodies. We help the living.”

Another American complains that the brass has to sit through a couple rounds of meetings a day when they’d like to be doing things and not talking.

The Marines were steaming over to Iraq when the disaster hit, diverting them to Indonesia. Their stay off the cost of the disaster-hit zone is at this time open-ended.

(Editor's Note: Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, said on Jan. 15 that he hoped the U.S. military's role in the relief mission will be finished well before the end of March.)

Tuesday, Jan. 11

Back in Banda Aceh, we get the word to pull out. The remaining food and water stocks we had built up in the house go to the orphans being tended to across the way in the area mosque. We share long good-byes with the family of the house next door (they own the place) who seem upset to see us go (not just because our daily cash payments will end).

We will miss the kindness shown to us by the folks in the neighborhood (if not perhaps the well-amplified 20-minute-long call to prayer at around 4:30 every morning).

And we will remember a lot of other things. The uncollected bodies. The Indonesian government, which seemed so clearly to be tragically slow off the mark and still seems to be struggling to find its way. The overwhelming international aid effort. And the spirit of the people of Aceh province.

As I was quoted in one story I did for the FOX News Channel: “They got walloped by something they had no idea was coming. They just didn’t deserve it. Now they deserve everything the world can give them.”

Let’s hope they get it.