Editor's note: Reporter Hal Bernton is in Indonesia's Aceh province, the area hardest hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami. He is reporting on conditions faced by survivors...

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Editor’s note: Reporter Hal Bernton is in Indonesia’s Aceh province, the area hardest hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami. He is reporting on conditions faced by survivors and on efforts by international relief organizations to deliver aid and rebuild the devastated region.

MEULABOH, Indonesia — For the first three weeks after the tsunami, the Sadar lay submerged in a newly formed swamp in the central business district. The big waves had pushed the long and narrow fishing vessel there from the original shoreline, nearly a half-mile away.

With only its wheelhouse above the surface, the vessel looked like it might slumber forever in the dark, warm water.

Then on Saturday, a band of 20 fishermen worked to salvage the Sadar. Several men waded in chest-deep water to grab hold of the gunwales. A dozen more strained at a rope attached to the bow.

“Pull, pull, pull … ooh oop, ooh oop,” somebody cried.

Their combined muscle power inched the vessel forward along the mucky bottom. For the next half-hour, the pulling and cries continued. Several sets of hands began to bail. The vessel surfaced and finally started to float.

“I did not think that boat could be saved,” said Mohammed Yunis, a leader of the local fishing fleet. “But it could be ready to go in a week.”

The salvage of the Sadar is just a tiny step in the broader work of rebuilding Sumatra’s tsunami-shattered northwest coast. The task is barely under way, with emergency relief remaining the focus of aid efforts to beleaguered survivors of the disaster that destroyed dozens of villages and killed more than 100,000 people in Indonesia.

But small bits of normal life are returning to hard-hit Meulaboh. Cellphones are working again. The main avenue is again passable to the port. Open-air vegetable markets destroyed by the waves have reopened in new locations on the outskirts of town. Schools are starting to get back in session as refugees are relocated from classrooms to massive tent cities.

Fishing, however, has remained at a virtual standstill, robbing the coastal communities of a vital source of protein and many residents of their chief livelihood.

Dozens of villages along the northwest coast once boasted fishing fleets large and small. They moved in and out of remote villages that, with the coastal highway destroyed, are being supplied through costly helicopter airdrops.

One of the biggest fishing fleets was based out of Meulaboh and the nearby village of Kuala Boubon. The combined fleet employed some 2,400 skippers and crew.

These were men who had always put their faith in the sea, building homes close to the shore and venturing onto the water day after day to provide for their families.

The fishermen’s plight has attracted the attention of Mercy Corps, a Pacific Northwest-based aid group active in Meulaboh. Though the overall task of rebuilding the fleet will be likely be aided by the Indonesian government, Mercy Corps hopes to lend an early hand by offering tools to repair damaged boats and new fishing gear to outfit those ready to go to sea.

“It’s good for us, because it moves us out of the relief phase into rebuilding people’s lives,” said Peter Sweetnam, who heads a Meulaboh staff that includes more than 15 people. “We’re hoping to get something going pretty quickly.”

Mercy Corps is part of a much larger group of 20 international aid groups that have converged on this town of some 70,000 to claim a role in the tsunami response.

The groups meet daily inside a stuffy military barracks to review what’s happening with food distribution, sanitation, health concerns and other key areas.

Sitting through those meetings, with aid workers shouting to be heard over the whir of helicopters taking off nearby, it’s easy to get the impression these groups are involved in a whirlwind of activity across the stricken region.


The fishing boat Sadar lays submerged in a newly formed swamp in the central business district of Meluaboh, Indonesia. On Saturday a band of some 20 fishermen worked trying to salvage the boat.

But in some respects, many of the groups are still working mostly around the margins of a disaster that has leveled or damaged dozens of villages, ripped out the heart of the government infrastructure and displaced tens of thousands of people.

“It really hit me in the gut to see what’s out there,” Sweetnam said after his first aerial tour last week of the length of the coastal disaster zone.

For Mercy Corps, there is no set game plan on how to proceed. Instead, the strategy is constantly evolving as workers expand their presence and figure out where they can best help.

Mercy Corps initially got involved in emergency relief by flying in 3 tons of salted fish to help meet a severe shortage of high-protein food. After distributing about a third of the fish, the organization discovered it made more sense to have Catholic Relief Services hand out the rest along with the rice, noodles and biscuits it was providing.

As weeks roll by, Mercy Corps is hoping to find a niche in rebuilding efforts with its work-for-cash program. In one of the first efforts, about 100 people were recruited to help fix a damaged school.

Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps is an international family of humanitarian agencies that provide emergency-relief services, develop sustainable communities and promote civil-society initiatives around the world. It is headquartered in the U.S. and Scotland.

History: The group was founded in 1979 as the Save the Refugees Fund, in response to the plight of Cambodian refugees. As it expanded to other countries, it was renamed Mercy Corp International in 1981.

Mercy Corps has provided $830 million in assistance to people in 80 nations.

Staff: 2,000 worldwide

Activities: Helping 6 million people in more than 35 countries.

Relief in Indonesia: Eighteen staff members are deployed to Banda Aceh and surrounding areas. Mercy Corps is one of the few aid agencies to have reached the west Sumatran coastal town of Meulaboh, one of the hardest-hit areas, where over 70,000 people are displaced.

Source: Mercy Corps

Saturday’s boat-salvage project represented the modest debut of Mercy Corps’ assistance in getting the fishing fleet back on its feet. Some 20 fishermen came to the decimated downtown streets of Meulaboh and begin rescuing salvageable vessels.

Before the disaster, many fisherman had achieved an enviable prosperity.

A big haul of the silver-hued makau could earn a fisherman nearly $30 per day, more than 10 times the average day-labor wage back on shore. Many took control of bigger and bigger boats that sailed not just off Sumatra but to the shores of Thailand and Myanmar.

The tsunami wiped out fishing families, their homes and livelihoods. Of the 300 boats in the Meulaboh-area fleet, about 200 were destroyed, according to Yunis, who surveyed the fishermen’s losses. Another 50 were damaged.

Only 50 survived unscathed, but most of those are still grounded because little fuel is available.

As for the fishermen, the tsunami took an equally steep toll. Some 60 percent of the fishermen — nearly 1,400 — died, according to Yunis.

Many of the survivors are in refugee camps. For some, their faith in the sea is shattered, and they are scared to return. They talk of abandoning the sea for employment on shore.

Others want to head back to the water. And soon.

“Of course I want to keep fishing,” said Surinan, a 42-year-old fisherman who lost his wife and home to the tsunami. “This has been my life for the last 20 years.”

But Surinan, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, is not sure how he can resume fishing. He and his three daughters, ages 6 to 16, now live in a tent camp at a soccer stadium outside Meulaboh.

He still has his boat, the Bunga Desa, but no money to repair it or outfit it with new gear and fuel.

Surinan didn’t join the Mercy Corps work crew. Still grieving for his wife and suddenly saddled with the responsibilities of a single father, he opted to stay at the refugee camp.

But the other fishermen converged on Surinan’s vessel to pull it from the rubble pile. It was hard, hot work in air still fouled by decaying bodies. But they succeeded in lugging the Bunga Desa to a spot close to a canal.

There, they used scrap wood to prop up the keel, so that the holes could be patched.

The work crew ended the day at noon. By then, it had rescued four fishing boats.

There were plenty more vessels scattered about the streets. But most cannot be moved without more equipment.

Block and tackle that Mercy Corps is flying in might budge a few, though many would require heavy equipment that must come from the Indonesian military. No one could say for sure when that might be available.

Still, Yunis, the fleet leader, seemed pleased with the day’s accomplishments.

When offered his daily wage, he tried several times to rebuff the payment of 25,000 rupiah — about $3 U.S.

“I don’t want the money,” Yunis said. “I just want to help the boats go back to sea.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Mercy Corps, a Portland-based aid organization, has provided Times staffers with travel assistance and accommodations in Indonesia.

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