A town called 'tears' is home to the grief-stricken

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The Independent Online

Mata'ie means "tears" in Indonesian and, in the town in Aceh that bears that name, the repertoire of human emotions has been reduced to just two: sorrow and grief.

Mata'ie means "tears" in Indonesian and, in the town in Aceh that bears that name, the repertoire of human emotions has been reduced to just two: sorrow and grief.

When an earthquake and tsunami destroyed vast swaths of the Indonesian province on Boxing Day, survivors from coastal areas near Banda Aceh, the capital, fled to higher ground and found themselves in Mata'ie, in the shadow of Aceh's hills.

Now 3,000 homeless and destitute people are living in a crowded refugee camp on the outskirts of the town, where they spend their days reliving the nightmare unleashed by the tsunami and searching fruitlessly for relatives and friends.

The camp's front fence has become a wall of despair, where hundreds of messages scrawled on fragments of cardboard beg for information on people missing. Many of them are children, washed to oblivion by the giant walls of water that swept away their flimsy homes.

Among the throng of tearful people scanning the handwritten notices yesterday was 25-year-old Lindayanti, who had not seen her husband or two children, aged two years and five months, for a week.

Pointing to the ugly wounds that cover her body, the legacy of her struggle to survive, she said: "I don't feel the pain from them anymore. But I feel so much pain in my heart."

Dreadful though Lindayanti's plight is, it is standard fare in post-tsunami Aceh, where at least 80,000 people were annihilated in one fell swoop.

In Banda Aceh, half the population was wiped out. There is barely a person who has not lost a spouse, child or parent, often all three. But many Acehnese will never know for certain what happened to loved ones who are missing. Thousands of victims are still buried under rubble, and the corpses that have been recovered are now unrecognisable. The authorities say a large proportion will never be identified. So the bereaved will never be able to mourn over a body, or give their closest family members a proper burial.

Sitting in a tent that she shares with 70 refugees in Mata'ie, Lindayanti recounted the events that reduced the province to ruins. Pulling at chunks of hair and weeping frequently, she said: "When the earthquake came, we all ran out of the house. Suddenly people were screaming that water was coming from the sea.

"My husband grabbed our children and took me by the hand, and we ran. But after only 10 paces, the wave came. I couldn't hold on to my husband's hand anymore, and we were swept in different directions. The water threw me up and down, again and again. I kept sinking and being crashed against broken buildings. When I looked around, I realised I was in Punge, two kilometres from my home in Blango.

"I tried to grab on to a floating mangrove tree, but I got trapped behind it. I couldn't see clearly because I had lost my glasses. A man lifted me out and I got on his shoulders. Someone took me into their house.

"The next day I tried to find my family. I saw my neighbour's children on their own. I took them in and looked after them, but then their mother came to find them. I was very sad, because she has still got her children.

"I have searched all the refugee camps and I can't find my family. I am sure my children are not still alive, particularly my boy, because he was just a baby. But I still hope my husband is alive. I believe he is alive, because he is a very good swimmer and he can stay under the water for a long time.

"I dream about my children every night. I hope they are happy in paradise. Every time I see a little boy or a little girl in the camp, I remember my children and cry. I don't think I can stand it anymore.

"I want someone to give me some new glasses, so that I can see properly and carry on looking for my family."

At the camp that is now Lindayanti's home, there are no toilets or washing facilities. Shelter is inadequate, and refuse is strewn all around. The refugees are suffering from respiratory tract and stomach diseases. In the tiny clinic, Dr Sasilia Daniel said she feared an outbreak of cholera.

In Mata'ie, there are many parents who have lost children, and many orphans crying pitifully for their parents. "A lot of people are suffering from mental trauma and depression," Dr Daniel said.