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LIVING AMID DEATH

The smell of death hangs over Banda Aceh like a fog. Taxi drivers keep surgical masks within easy reach on the dashboard. Teenagers on motorcycles, traffic police and an old man selling coconuts from a cart attached to his bicycle all wear masks and scarves to stave off the stench.

But they cannot keep it out. It is everywhere in this now-flattened city on the northern tip of Sumatra.

The earthquake and tsunami that plowed through south Asia to the tip of Africa claimed more than 100,000 lives in Indonesia alone; about half of that toll came from this provincial capital, where 300,000 people used to live.

Now, the odor of death follows the trucks that bring bodies to the mass graves they are still digging here, two weeks after the tsunami. The trucks are full of Indonesian soldiers and volunteers in gloves and masks who speed between the ruins and the grave-sites and yell as they pitch the bodies into trenches. They chain smoke on the grass medians between burial ruins, trying to shake the stench of the corpses.

On the road into town from the airport, where the mist veils forested mountains in the distance, thousands are buried in deep earthen scars that stretch the length of a football field. On the outskirts, near the beach, body bags line the roads.

Many corpses are still trapped in the rubble, including those of 300 workers at a cement factory who were caught and covered by the wave. Before the cleanup is over, they will have to be dug out of the ruins, fished from gullies, pulled from the slippery jungle underbrush.

"Even if we see the bodies, we cannot identify them," said Abdul Jabbar, 43, who came from Jakarta 10 days ago to search for his mother- and father-in-law and his young niece and nephew. He stood outside the military hospital eyeing the leaflets on the board.

"If we can identify the body we are very happy, but I'm not sure we can find it anymore," Jabbar said. "On the 10th day, it is already very hard. Already the skin is black."

For those who survived, the future is uncertain.

On Saturday afternoon, a stocky man in a black T-shirt and flip-flops approached a notice board outside a hospital and stuck up a list of all the relatives he hadn't seen since Dec. 26. His father, mother, grandmother, grandfather, two brothers, a cousin, two nieces and a nephew had all disappeared.

"I think they are dead, because there was no chance to run," said Putra Rauf, 28, who escaped the rising water on a motorcycle. He had searched hospitals like this one all across the city, morgues where bodies rotted in the heat, teeming camps where people crouched under soaked tents to escape the tropical rains. He had found no sign of them.

"I love my family, all my family," he said, resting a hand on his chest, his eyes moistening. "I hope for a miracle."

He last saw them that Sunday morning, when an earthquake rocked his house in Banda Aceh. The house wasn't badly damaged, and Rauf and his family didn't think much of it. About 40 minutes later, the wave came. Rauf was outside and managed to outrun the water on his motorcycle.

A day later, he returned to the house looking for his relatives. The house was gone, and the place was full of dirty water and garbage.

There used to be 15 people in his family. Now there are five.

"I hope my family is in heaven, with God," he said.

Inside the hospital, a dozen people lay on stretchers, waiting for an Australian military plane to take them to better hospitals in Medan, the big town southeast of here. One boy had a broken jaw and a disfigured face. A woman's head was bandaged. Many, like 20-year-old Kasdiana, who uses only one name, were recent amputees. After the earthquake and the wave, small wounds were left to fester. They turned into major infections.

Kasdiana broke his ankle running through the water as it swept into his village about 30 miles away. For days, he lay in the village clinic as doctors dressed his wound but did nothing to set the bones or stop the infection. When he arrived at the hospital in Banda Aceh a week after the tsunami, having traveled part of the way in a boat that broke down and floated for half a day, the bones were sticking out of his right leg and his wound was badly infected.

At first he objected to the amputation. But the doctors promised him a prosthetic.

"He was worried that girls might not like him," said Major Simon Hawkins, an Australian Army translator. "But the choice was death."

Kasdiana, a boyish-looking, brown-skinned young man with thin arms and a brilliant smile, said he is getting used to life without a leg. When he woke from the operation, the first thing he did was ask for a cigarette. He said he felt no pain.

As the afternoon wore on, it began to rain, a relentless tropical downpour.

In the filthy, white-tiled hospital ward, Kasdiana waited on his stretcher. Rauf wandered off to hang his missing person notices on the other boards and gateposts around town that are crowded with desperate leaflets. Jabbar would return to Jakarta the following day, having failed to find his relatives.

In the market, people sold cabbages and boiled eggs. Sometimes they let their masks and kerchiefs slip down around their necks, but when the trucks passed, they hurriedly raised them again.

In the parking lot alongside the hospital, two corpses lay side by side in black and white body bags. The rain poured down on them. Before long, a truck would come and take them away.

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