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 Local News - Monday, January 3, 2005

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South Asia Tsunami's Effects Felt Here; Death Tolls Rises
Ten members of Mahdi's family among the missing

Journal Staff

IRINA PERESS/Journal Staff

Cornell graduate student Saiful Mahdi, left, talks Saturday morning in his Ithaca apartment about the 10 family members he has not yet heard from back in his native Indonesia, where his village was hard hit by the tsunami. At right is Mahdi's friend and neighbor, fellow graduate student Mazalan Kamis of Malaysia.

To help

To donate, e-mail Mazalan Kamis at An account has been established under Kamis' and Saiful Mahdi's names with HSBC bank.

ITHACA -- The news trickled in slowly, and the more Saiful Mahdi learned, the worse it got.

At first, the Cornell doctoral student assumed his family -- living eight kilometers from the shore in the Aceh province of Indonesia -- would remain out of the reach of last week's deadly tsunami, spawned by an underground earthquake.

But as the death toll in news reports kept rising by the thousands, Mahdi was having no luck reaching relatives by telephone. Half a world away, in his Ithaca apartment, he frantically cobbled together bits of information and eventually tracked down an old friend, still in Indonesia, on his cell phone.

"He said our village is wiped away," said the 36-year-old Mahdi. "Totally destroyed."

Ten members of Mahdi's family -- including his grandmother, brother and sister --are still missing from Kampung Jawa and other villages in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

Over the past week, it's become increasingly clear to Mahdi and the rest of the world that the Aceh province bore the brunt of the tsunami that swept across South Asia on Dec. 26. The United Nations has estimated that the final death toll, now at over 123,000, could surpass 150,000 -- with as many as 100,000 in or near Aceh alone.

Remaining in Ithaca with his homeland in ruins fills Mahdi with a sense of hopelessness, he said. So members of the Cornell Community have arranged to send him back to Indonesia -- partially to wage one last desperate search for his family, but more so to deliver drinking water, food and other supplies to the thousands of survivors who now face the dangers of starvation and disease.

"As I see it, Saiful cannot be doing the thinking," said 41-year-old Mazalan Kamis, a postdoctoral associate in Cornell's department of education who started organizing donations and mobilizing volunteers last week. "I think if I didn't do this, I'd feel very bad inside."

Kamis comes from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, just across a narrow ocean strait from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. His relatives were not harmed in the disaster, but he said he and his immediate family have felt a close bond with Mahdi, his wife and three children since they ended up living in the same apartment complex more than a year ago.

"I feel so lucky to have a friend and a brother and a neighbor like this," Mahdi said of Kamis. "I don't know what I would do."

News reports on Sunday said supplies were only just beginning to reach survivors a week after the storm because of logistical problems. Aceh has also been under martial law for almost two years because of an ongoing separatist movement.

Mahdi and Kamis thought a smaller, grassroots relief effort would be more efficient at delivering aid to the needy. In a day or so last week, they raised the $6,000 minimum they estimated they would need to send Mahdi for a few weeks to Indonesia, where he plans to team up with about 10 childhood friends. He leaves on Wednesday.

The group is also seeking donations or discounts on water purification systems, tents, two-way radios and other items Mahdi will need in the disaster zone.

"Within a few degrees of separation, I think Saiful's e-mail had reached a couple of thousand people," said Derek Cabrera, a doctoral candidate in Kamis' department who donated a plane ticket to Mahdi. "It's an amazing thing and it's happening all over the world right now."

Within just his own network of contacts, Cabrera said, more than $17,000 in donations arrived in 48 hours.

Worldwide, more than $2 billion in aid has been pledged, according to the U.N.

A student in Cornell's city and regional planning department, Mahdi will also survey the damage and report back on what will be needed to rebuild the area. Kamis, meanwhile, will continue to raise money for immediate relief and eventual restoration efforts.

"This is a start-over because there is nothing left," Mahdi said.

Simeon Moss, deputy director of Cornell News Service, said the university supports any efforts to help victims. Since the tsunami hit while the university was closed for a week-long break, Moss said, he was not yet aware of other Cornellians affected by the tragedy or involved in relief.

"My guess is that, given the diversity of the community, we will find out that more people have been affected," Moss said.

For Mahdi, the plan has always been to return with his doctoral degree -- and his wife and children -- to Aceh, where he is a lecturer at Syiah Kuala University. He has heard that many professors died in the disaster, he said, so the province needs intellectuals to return and provide new leadership.

Amid the grief of the past week, Mahdi has also received good news. A second sister, her husband and her three children -- all of whom had been feared dead --turned up alive on Friday. They survived the storm surge by scrambling to the third floor of a neighbor's house. His mother was also safe in Mecca and another brother survived in Jakarta.

Although hope is dwindling for finding the 10 relatives who are still missing, Mahdi said he may still try to wade through the remains of his village.

"I believe that maybe I'm (still) here," he said, "because I need to do something for my family, my community, the university."


Originally published Monday, January 3, 2005

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