Exhausted survivors struggle to picture a future for shattered city

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The Independent Online

Two weeks after Banda Aceh's tsunami nightmare, another, more familiar misery has arrived: torrential rain pouring down on a dark, muddied sea.

Two weeks after Banda Aceh's tsunami nightmare, another, more familiar misery has arrived: torrential rain pouring down on a dark, muddied sea.

The waves break on to a shore that is only a fortnight old, a slope of wet, yellow sand where before were houses, roads and a school.

Out in the churning water, 200 yards from the new beach, is a broken chain of man-made islets - all that remains of the promenade where parents and children used to gather on Sunday mornings, including 26 December, to bathe.

Behind us, as we look out to these pathetic remnants, is what the sea has done to Banda Aceh. Journalists have repeatedly used the words "unimaginable" and "indescribable" about this landscape. That's not strictly true. To eyes accustomed to the terrible vistas of the 20th century, these miles and miles of unrelieved devastation have a ghastly familiarity. Tokyo looked much like this after the catastrophic earthquake and subsequent firestorms of 1923, and again after the American carpet bombing of 1945. Hiroshima looked a lot like this after the atom bomb.

Hiroshima and Tokyo both came back from the dead, Tokyo twice; both are now huge, prosperous cities. What chance has Banda Aceh of doing the same? The prevailing view among people I spoke to is that no one will want to live in it again.

Jeileteng Pribadi, a teacher at the university and now a volunteer in one of two tent cities on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, spoke for many when he said: "I don't think people want to go back. Even if their houses are among the few left standing, there are no neighbours. And there are still bodies all over the place. It's a dead city. People traumatised by the earthquake and tsunami will not want to go back. Many people have already moved away, to Medan or Jakarta. The government needs to build a new city nearby, starting from scratch."

The damage inflicted on Banda Aceh is horrendous. Another local academic, a lecturer in mechanical engineering, took me on his scooter for a tour of the ruins. We started from Pendopo, the ornate governor's residence that has become a media centre since the disaster, as well as an unofficial displacement camp for many of the orphaned teenage boys offering themselves out as drivers. This complex is pretty well unscarred, and from here on south the damage is patchy: the occasional concrete building toppled by the quake, a high tide mark of mud and debris on certain streets marking the furthest extent that the waves reached.

As we head north, however, the scenery becomes rapidly more tormented and grotesque. The city's main landmark, a huge mosque with black domes and stark, white walls which survived with little obvious damage, marks the borderline. From here on towards the sea, the road has been cleared by bulldozers only in the past two days; search teams in fluorescent orange suits and yellow gumboots are still dragging bodies out of the wreckage and lining putrescent bin-bagged parcels at the side of the road for collection.

From here north to the sea, a few buildings are still standing. And on satellite photographs, which show the white needle of the lighthouse in the top left-hand corner, the hard outlines of the bigger and even some of the smaller buildings are still identifiable. But there is nothing, not one building, one suspects, that will not have to be razed.

Much has gone, and much remains. But the outlines of buildings as seen from the air are merely their concrete foundations, the only part of even the most robust buildings to survive the tsunami. One oblong building is the regional taxation office, two weeks ago a three-storey, reinforced-concrete structure. It has survived in the sense that the concrete members of which it is built have not been snapped and scattered, merely flattened, and twisted in crazy shapes.

Banda Aceh has been furiously shaken then delivered a series of knock-out punches. It is this double action that accounts for the comprehensiveness of the devastation. It is a rare sight. Nearly three years ago, I reported from the city of Bhuj in Gujarat, India, close to the epicentre of an earthquake in which 20,000 people died. The damage there was typical of destructive earthquakes in being capricious: one newly built multi-story concrete block of flats was buckled and smashed; another on the opposite side of the road seemed unharmed. The city did not need to be wiped clean before it could be lived in again. Much of it could be rehabilitated.

But in Banda Aceh, on top of the earthquake's caprice was superimposed the tsunami's uniform ferocity. Many buildings in the city - especially the ones with heavy concrete floors and roofs - were reduced to rubble by the earthquake that preceded the tsunami by 20 minutes; when the waves came there nothing was left for them to do. But on those the earthquake had spared, the water was merciless.

A man who lived in a house close to the shore and who managed to speed his wife and children to safety on his motorbike saw the whole thing. "The sea went out as far as that headland," he said, pointing to the edge of the mountains that shelter the city's bay to the north west. "Then it came in as high as the lighthouse, fuming like smoke and making a deafening noise." And then practically everything that had withstood the earthquake was brought low.

Today, a few wood-framed houses stick up above the fields of matchwood, but it is unlikely that any of them will be deemed strong enough to survive.

We meet a man sitting on a flattened utility pole, gazing out to sea. He was 125 miles away away when the disaster happened; but his wife and six children were at home in their house by the shore. Inside it was 2.5m rupias (£144) that he had recently taken out of the bank - all of his worldly wealth. It seems heartless to ask if he plans to come back to live in Banda Aceh. He no longer has a life worth speaking of.

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