Video: Help for Indonesia

Dateline NBC
updated 1/10/2005 9:34:54 AM ET 2005-01-10T14:34:54

It's been more than two weeks since the wave that shook the world. It's astonishing to see how much has been done to help those in need, and how much more help is still needed. Tragically, the region that was hit first, and hardest, has been the last to get help, the Aceh province of western Indonesia. It's a place the woman in our story knows well. The relief group she works with has been there almost from the start of this epic disaster. She also happens to be a woman we know well, a former member of the Dateline family.

Today came the witness, the video, the awful eerie image of the tsunami two weeks ago. Almost as if in weird slow motion, surging, rushing, tearing through Banda Aceh Indonesia. The picture from Indonesian TV of the city of perhaps 400,000 brought down in one terrible moment.

Now, the relief effort is in full stride and so is the clean up. Though just to cut up an old 50 ton fishing boat and haul it six miles to the sea will take weeks or months. And all the while the smell of death is stuck in your nose and the people of Banda Aceh count their loss. A wall of the missing is tended by relatives unable yet to give up hope that their loved ones might somehow appear.

A young woman tells how she saw the wave, and grabbed her baby and ran up the hill, and then turned around to see her husband, her mother, her father and her siblings swallowed up. One more of the thousands of stories in the place the locals have taken to calling "City of Ghosts."

And then, there, in all that trouble, you find a very familiar face: Margaret Larson. The same Margaret Larson who reported stories for Dateline NBC not so long ago, or, more recently telling the news on KING-TV in Seattle. It was life of privilege, really, a mother of a young son, a glamorous, globe-trotting success story. But then there was this moment, years ago, covering women and children victimized by war in Kurdish Iraq—and it grew like a seed inside until, in 2002, she simply quit. She gave it up for a life devoted to the least privileged places on earth. 

Margaret Larson: “having a child, having a boy. I see him in every kid I see. And that's changed the way I see the world.”

She's gone all over the world for a Portland-based relief organization called Mercy Corps. Why?

Larson: “I saw things around the world which were indescribable. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and do something.”

And now she is in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the world's most dreadful disaster zone, to be greeted by horrors almost beyond imagination. 

Keith Morrison: “Out here this is not an empty field.”

Larson: “No, this was a place where people lived and did business. There's a fishing area, fishing village this way, and a busy market area. This was a heavily populated focal point for the town. It's gone.”

To be in Banda Aceh is to understand that even pictures don't properly transcribe the scale of. One is numb by the size of destruction. The obscenity of bits and pieces of people's lives strewn about for mile after mile after mile. Corpses dumped where the water left them, now to be picked up by the volunteers. One is reminded of Hiroshima. Words seem puny.

Larson: “People have asked me since I've been here, is this what you expected? And I said even here, I can't comprehend it, I can't believe it.”

Nor is this the extent of it. Only now are military from the U.S. and other countries uncovering the scope of the damage in remote coastal towns and offshore islands. Some places were at least partially spared, others simply gone.

Estimates of the death toll around Banda Aceh and down the coast hovers near 100,000. What is it really? No one knows. Experts say it could be a quarter of a million. Complicating the business is that no one seems to know how many people actually lived along the water.

A year ago, in the midst of a fierce rebellion, now in a pause, I believe the few Westerners left or were expelled. After the tsunami, says Margaret, aid workers worried about the sort of reception they'd find there. They needn't have.

Larson: “We've been so interested, because this was such a conservative area, closed to foreigners. People have been friendly, open, grateful.”

And everywhere are stories of stunning heartbreak, walking bundles of grief. 

Morrison: “How many children do you have?”

The fisherman who held on to his wife and daughter until the tsunami hit a tree, and it hit them. He and many others wander the wasteland, near the vacant places their homes once stood. Another man lost his wife and three children.

Weeks after the disaster, smashed fishing boats still lean on buildings five miles from the shore. Downtown stores wait for demolition. There's no saving these. And there are still the ever-present body bags. 

Yet for all the horror, the expected refugee crisis did not materialize. The Achenese, as they call themselves, are digging out, and have given their international helpers lessons of genuine humanity. U.S. soldiers delivering relief beam at their sudden popularity here.

Mercy Corps, says Margaret, have hired a team of locals, paying them to help distribute tons of food to 45,000 people. But there is also a warehouse full of basic stuff mats, shoes, dairy cans for water. Mainly, she says, they're hoping to inject a little seed money, a financial boost so that the Achenese can make the recovery their own.

Larson: “This place is great because it's been very easy to find community leaders, very easy to find people coming together and solving their own problems. And that's where we go to offer some assistance.”

And now today, on this sweltering afternoon in the half of Banda Aceh the tsunami didn't reach, local produce markets are back in business, restaurants are open and roads are once again full of traffic. What a change from the day she came, says Margaret, surrounded then by so much death.

Larson: “The air was thick and hot and it smelled like death, but I look around now, and I see people cleaning up and getting back to work, and with a little bit of help, getting going again, and you can feel it --- the life coming back to this city.”

And Margaret Larson, former TV celebrity, is convinced that her career change was exactly the right thing to do.

Larson: “For me, it was something I felt compelled to do and just felt like I needed to be at the end of my life able to look my son  in the eye and say I did the best I could to hand the world off to you in a better shape than I found it.”

If you'd like to help victims of the tsunami disaster, you can call, 1-800-HELP-NOW for the Red Cross or 1-800-4UNICEF for UNICEF's disaster relief fund. You can also find more information by clicking here.

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