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Desperately seeking hope in tsunami aftermath

Banda Aceh was the hardest-hit city in Indonesia. The country's death toll following last month's earthquake and tsunami has grown to more than 115, 000. Still here you will find smiles and plenty of aid. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
Students listen to their teacher as they sing together during a lesson at the emergency school in a refugee camp in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Tuesday.Mast Irham / EPA via Sipa Press
/ Source: NBC News

Wet clothes cover up a row of bushes, waiting to dry. A mother washes her 14-month-old child with a small pail of water. Australian soldiers greet a group of curious children that quickly surrounds them. This is the scene inside one refugee camp set up on the grounds of Indonesia's TV network, TVRI. But what's striking is the ice cream vendor. Survivors are already back in business.

Banda Aceh was the hardest-hit city in Indonesia. The country's death toll following last month's earthquake and tsunami has grown to more than 115, 000. Still here you will find smiles and plenty of aid. Twenty-five-year-old mother Asnawati was forced to flee her home. It was swamped by water and debris.  "The food is well-distributed, I just don't like the taste," she said.

The list of groups helping out in this camp offers an alphabet of non-governmental organizations: CERIA, CARE, IOM, UNHCR. Aid workers estimate roughly 3,000 refugees are living here. It's relatively small size, like most of the others in the Aceh Province, is viewed as an asset in the effort to combat the potential spread of disease.

Although the destruction is staggering, volunteers say the aid effort has gone better than expected. Now relief workers are already focusing on the next stage of disaster relief. The goal: to move these people from tent cities to barrack-type buildings where they can live for the near future, until their homes are hopefully rebuilt.

Improving sanitary conditions
Dr. Edward O'Rourke is volunteering for the International Organization of Migration (IOM). At home in Massachusetts, he is a physician at Harvard Medical School.

Here his priority is improving the sanitary conditions where people go to the bathroom and get rid of their garbage -- two crucial factors in stopping the spread of disease.

O'Rourke acknowledges, "The coordination is haphazard at best. This is well beyond the scope of operation that any voluntary organizations can manage on their own."

No single group has emerged as a central coordinator for the numerous NGO's efforts.

However, that's not stopping these volunteers from getting things done. Rather then waiting for direction, many groups are combining forces on the fly.  Today, Dr. O'Rourke's organization is working with GOAL -- an Irish charity -- and the Australian Army.

Outside Banda Aceh
The road between Medan and Banda Aceh is roughly 280 miles long and just two lanes nearly the entire way.

Truck drivers whip back-and-forth between lanes to pass. It took us almost 14 hours to drive last Saturday. The United Nations banned its workers from driving the stretch Monday night through Tuesday morning, based on reports of fighting between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels.

We made the trip over the weekend.  Despite a series of checkpoints where we were waved through by armed soldiers, we had no problems.

The road takes you along the northern part of Sumatra, passing numerous villages ravaged by the giant waves. The closer one gets to Banda Aceh, the more refugee camps are to be found. One man we met at a coffee shop several hours outside Banda Aceh complained that refugees were not getting enough relief.

"The aid is concentrated in the main city (Banda Aceh), only available for the refugees who live there," he said. "The refugees in our village are from Banda Aceh, but they are getting only a small ration." That ration is a few pounds of rice for five days.

Aid workers admit one of their greatest challenges has been getting supplies to those communities isolated by the tsunami.

By some accounts, several dozen bridges were washed away by the powerful flood of water. Some of those villages are only accessible by air. In Calang, the death toll had grown to nearly 5,000 by the time relief workers finally reached the fishing village.

Children look forward, but remember victims
Back in the refugee camp, 10-year-old Nofi Trianti keeps trying to get my attention, yelling out, "Hello mister! Hello mister!"

When I look back, she has a huge grin across her face. Among her new group of friends at the refugee camp, she has clearly become the leader. Each of them survived the devastation that their neighborhoods and tens of thousands of others did not. She is evidence of just how resilient this community is proving to be.

Nofi misses her older brother and sister, both killed by the tsunami, and her home. Asked about her experience at the camp, she tells me through our translator: "I have to sleep in a tent. I never feel comfortable there. I miss my friends."