In a landscape devoid of life, concrete foundations are the only structures that remain

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The Independent Online

Lam Puuk was a little beach town on Aceh's west coast renowned for its grilled seafood and gorgeous sunsets, and treasured by surfers for its laid-back atmosphere and challenging waves.

Lam Puuk was a little beach town on Aceh's west coast renowned for its grilled seafood and gorgeous sunsets, and treasured by surfers for its laid-back atmosphere and challenging waves.

Nine days ago, the surf turned into a monstrous wall of water that wiped out Lam Puuk and nearby seaside towns. Of the 7,000 people who lived in the area, only 100 survived. Yesterday, on the wrecked road to Lam Puuk, a stray dog nibbled on a corpse left to rot in the baking sun. Of all the places hit by the Asian tsunami, the Indonesian province of Aceh suffered most grievously.

The official death toll stands at 80,000, although observers regard that as an underestimate. More than half of the victims lived on the enchantingly beautiful west coast, an endless stretch of long white beaches backed by emerald mountains. Now that coastline, near the epicentre of the earthquake that created the waves, is in ruins, with town after town washed off the map. On a helicopter aid flight over the area yesterday, an apocalyptic vista unfolded, revealing a landscape eerily still, virtually devoid of life.

The once densely populated plains are peppered with the concrete foundations of houses, the only sign of thriving communities where people spent their days fishing in the Coral Sea or farming chillies and cacao. Homes, schools and offices have vanished, replaced by a nothingness only relieved by the occasional smashed husk of a building or a patch of forlorn palm trees.

Menacing black flood waters swirl all around, and the water's line is sharply drawn. Behind it lie houses and mosques, all intact, and scenic rice fields; in front there is nothing but rubble and debris, caked in a thick blanket of mud. The height of the lethal waves is visible in the trees, where the leaves are dead and brown as high as 20ft up.

In the town of Lamno, survivors swarmed around the Indonesian air force Cougar that landed on a football field to deliver biscuits, mineral water and plastic sheeting for tents. Paramedics dashed out with an injured man on a stretcher who was awaiting transport to hospital in the capital, Banda Aceh. Like most of the west coast, Lamno is inaccessible except by air, with roads collapsed and bridges damaged. Two dozen flights a day are taking emergency food and medicines to towns and villages cut off from the outside world.The army medical officer in Lamno said he needed antibiotics.

The town is just in front of hills cloaked in tropical vegetation, but such was the speed and force of the tsunami that most residents had no time to flee. "It was horrendous," said Ayulo, a local teacher.

The government, stung by criticism of the slowness of its relief operation, insists all the isolated communities are receiving aid. But there are reports of people walking for five days to reach refugee camps after waiting in vain for help from the air.

The social welfare minister, Alwi Shihadi, told The Independent: "The logistics are sufficient. The emergency situation is over. Food and medicine are getting through without problems. No one is starving." Asked about the number of refugees in Aceh, he replied: "I don't know. I'm not good with figures." He said relief organisers faced "very unusual conditions ... There is no word suitable to describe the catastrophe. The magnitude of the disaster is so huge, it is beyond our imagination."

Lam Puuk, like other towns along the coast, was a popular holiday destination for people from Banda Aceh, as well as foreign visitors, mainly from the Netherlands and Germany. It was a place where teenagers met to play music in the open air and children floated in the turquoise water on lilos. On the day of the tsunami, a Sunday, it was packed.

The tourist cottages have gone, together with the golf course, picnic ground, swimming pool and fish cafés. Lam Puuk no longer exists. In its place is a godforsaken landscape reminiscent of the Mad Max films, where excavated corpses wrapped in plastic lie by the roadside, seemingly abandoned, like rubbish. The sickly odour of death attests to the presence of more bodies still buried beneath the rubble. Only the mosque, a gleaming white building, still stands.

In a nearby refugee camp, one of the few survivors, Rasidah, 40, sobbed as she told how she lost her husband, two brothers and two-year-old daughter. She was running her stall at the town's market, a little inland, when the tsunami struck. The body of her daughter, Risana, was found a mile away. Her husband's body is still missing. "I also lost many of my staff," said Rasidah, who rented bungalows to tourists.

"Aceh is broken," said an elderly man from Lam Puuk who lost his wife, son and daughter, patting his heart. "But we are Muslims. We still pray. What else can we do?"