Every morning Yahya leaves home with a hoe in hand. But he is not tending his coffee crops as he did before the tsunami slammed into Aceh’s coastlines, killing 131,000 people: He is digging for bodies.
In the days after the killer waves, thousands of corpses were hastily buried across the province by survivors and volunteers. Nine months later, some at least are being given a more permanent resting place.
Yahya is one of 15 volunteers looking for badly decomposed remains that are scattered in shallow graves around Leupung, which was destroyed by the tsunami and lost some 90 percent of its 14,000 people.
A few bodies were claimed by surviving relatives and buried privately. But the majority are unidentifiable and buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of the village some 10 miles west of the provincial capital Banda Aceh.
As Indonesia is largely a Muslim country, Yahya and the team give the bodies full Islamic funeral rites, something they fear most victims were not afforded in the chaos following the tsunami.
Focal point for survivors
They say they hope the mass grave will provide a focal point for survivors to pray for their lost loved ones, and that their work will help villagers move on, allowing farmers to start planting again and villagers to dig wells.
“I feel like this is my responsibility as a human being,” said Yahya, 23, one of the lucky ones who lost no family in the powerful Dec. 26 earthquake or tsunami that followed. “Everyone is doing whatever they can to help ... So am I.”
The initial rush to bury the dead was followed by a long lull due in part to a shortage of supplies, but also to the reality that people were busy rebuilding their lives, said Abdul Halim, the volunteers’ team leader.
But the job picked up again two weeks ago. So far, the volunteers have dug up 295 victims — many of them found in shallow graves that have been ravaged by wild animals. The remains, usually a few bones or piece of rotted flesh, are placed in yellow body bags and taken later to the mass grave near the main road to the village.
Painstaking, gruesome task
Theirs is a slow, painstaking and gruesome task.
Skies were overcast when Yahya left his temporary home, a shelter set up by a local aid group, with one other volunteer earlier this week.
They worked all day, hindered but not stopped by the occasional shower, digging then walking for several miles, then digging again in places identified by villagers as makeshift burial sites.
Despite their efforts, the pair only found the remains of four people, a quarter of the number they find when the weather is good.
No one gets paid for his work, said Halim, 55. But villagers occasionally give them a small donation, a meal or a cigarette.
“They only hope for a reward from God,” he said.