Body retrievals keep crews busy
Seattle Times staff reporter
MEULABOH, Indonesia — Gurun Reinanto is a slender young man from Jakarta with a shy giggle that makes him seem much younger than his 25 years. In normal times, he would be back home in Indonesia's capital city, hunting for work after graduating with a civil-engineering degree.
Instead, he is here, hunting for corpses.
In the wake of the Dec. 26 tsunami, Reinanto has ended up in this wave-battered town volunteering for one of the most difficult of aid jobs. He retrieves the bodies of victims, a task that even now — more than two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami — is far from done.
Reinanto says this is honorable work that will bring him good karma as he moves forward in his own life, and then onto the next. More importantly, the epic scope of the tsunami tragedy touched his heart. "I wanted to do something to show my support for the victims," Reinanto said. "To show my empathy."
Reinanto has been on the job for less than a week, leading a 20-man crew of youthful volunteers organized by Artha Graha, an Indonesian bank. They are camping in a grade-school classroom and at night talk and strum the guitar like a bunch of summer-camp scouts.
But the crew members — working one day on, one day off — already are veterans of dozens of body retrievals that could fuel a lifetime of nightmare visions. The task is made more difficult by what Reinanto says is a lack of supplies. He has rubber boots and surgical masks but wants shovels to help gather up the remains, better quality gloves and alcohol to wipe off his hands and face.
"I am very afraid that bacteria might come into my body," Reinanto said.
But he showed no signs of unease as his work crew earlier this week set off from a park square in the devastated downtown section of Meulaboh. They headed across a central avenue, then one block over to a side street. As they walked through the courtyard of an Islamic school, a young woman pointed to a mountain of debris that emitted a moldering stench.
Reinanto checked it out and was sure a body lay underneath. But he opted to move on. "Too hard to pick up," he said.
His crew next stopped in a street lined with 10-foot-high piles of rubble. Some local residents had already lent a hand. Four bodies lay in the street, wrapped in sheets of corrugated metal pulled from debris piles. The crew slid each of the remains into blue, zippered body bags, then hauled them off to a collection point back on the main avenue.
By 11 a.m., just an hour into the work day, their body count had climbed to 12. Some told a tale of final moments: two different women were found locked in the embrace of a child.
It's a marathon task. By the end of the day, they will have collected 44 bodies in all. There is no way to identify most of the remains. The bodies are taken to a cemetery and buried 50 to a grave, according to Reinanto. More than 6,000 of the town's 70,000 people may have been killed, while more than 1,240 are listed as missing in an Indonesian military tally.
Most of the casualties were in Meulaboh central district, built out along a peninsula that was pounded from three sides by a series of waves. Witnesses say the second wave was the biggest, reaching the height of palm trees and roaring like a wrecking ball through businesses, homes and the central square.
At midday in the square, when the crews returned to eat their rice curry, someone had deposited 10 more bodies wrapped in roofing material. Once work resumed, the first task was to put them into body bags.
In the afternoon, the crew scouted debris piles for more victims. Many of the piles were being picked over by salvagers sorting through the mess to rescue a refrigerator, a rug or bicycle.
Reinanto says that some of these people do not respect the dead, stripping gold earrings and necklaces from corpses.
Others seek to lay claim to home sites that are not their own, requesting help to clear out the remains of former occupants.
"The man who says, 'This was my house,' when he is not crying when I bring the body out, then I know he is not telling the truth," Reinanto said.
Toward the end of his shift, Reinanto ran into just such a case. A man said two dead strangers were in his house, a spacious abode with big rooms and an arcing entryway. Reinanto did not believe the man's story.
But there still was work to be done. He entered the house and peered into a bedroom, where the first corpse lay face down in a corner filled with mud. The team retrieved the body from the house.
Reinanto says he plans to stay on the job for two weeks, then return home to Jakarta. He might come back. Maybe not. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company