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Monday, January 24, 2005 - Page updated at 03:58 P.M.

Delayed return to Indonesia may have saved UW student

Seattle Times staff reporter


Sylvia Agustina was in Seattle working on her master's thesis at the University of Washington when the tsunami hit her homeland.

Editor's Note: Hal Bernton is in Indonesia's Aceh province, the area hardest hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami. He is reporting on conditions the survivors face and efforts to deliver aid and rebuild the devastated region.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Sylvia Agustina planned to come back home to Indonesia in early December, as soon as she finished her University of Washington master's thesis on riverfront redevelopment of this city on the northern tip of Sumatra.

But as she made her final plans to fly from Seattle to Indonesia, an instructor asked her to put in more work on her final paper. So she postponed her homecoming until early January.

That delay may have saved her life.

It meant that she was still in Seattle on Dec. 26, when the earthquake and tsunami struck her homeland, killing more than 100,000 people in Indonesia. In Banda Aceh alone, more than 70,000 of the city's 230,000 residents are believed to be missing or dead.

"I was supposed to be here when it happened," Agustina said. "But I had to do more revisions."

When Agustina returned to Indonesia in the first week in January, she found that waves had wiped out her family's village, which spread out on flat coastal lands within the broader city of Banda Aceh. Her two younger brothers and two younger sisters had survived. But she lost her mother, father and dozens of relatives and friends.

According to the most recent estimates, only 211 of the village's 1,300 people survived the tsunami.

The 31-year-old Agustina now finds herself the eldest member of her immediate family. A soft-spoken woman with deep brown eyes, she bridles at any suggestion that she is a "victim" of the tsunami. In recent weeks, Agustina has put her talents and energy into volunteering in the relief effort even as she struggles to find time to mourn her huge personal losses.

After the tsunami

Reporter Hal Bernton and photographer Betty Udesen report from Indonesia.

Slideshow with audio

After the tsunami: More stories

Agustina works with the People's Crisis Center, a homegrown support group that was initially established to help thousands of women and children displaced or injured in the years of fighting between the Indonesian military and rebels seeking independence for Aceh province.

That group, which works out of a modest storefront office, is now helping the survivors of the tsunami. Agustina has faith that it will continue to offer support long after many of the international aid groups have left the province.

Agustina brings special skills to the reconstruction task.

During her two years studying urban planning at the University of Washington, she gathered satellite photos of Banda Aceh to develop her master's thesis on reshaping the city. Those photos now allow vivid comparisons of the changes the tsunami wrought.

And she is eager to consult with survivors on how best to rebuild the city and help make sure their voice is heard as the Indonesian government and international agencies form plans.

Agustina also is helping in the relief efforts organized by Seattle Muslims and others in the Puget Sound area who have offered supplies and money. She arrived in early January with an initial shipment of aid from the UW staff, and the People's Crisis Center trucked it up to Banda Aceh. Eventually, she hopes to direct assistance from Seattle to the orphans of the disaster.

"My sisters (and brothers) are pretty strong," Agustina said. "We try to get busy to help those who have survived. Because if we don't get busy, then we start to break down."

A site of devastation

Agustina has returned only once to the site of her family's village. Known as Lambung, it was an intimate urban enclave of interrelated families, including some 400 people whom Agustina considered kin.

As an urban planner, Agustina had been concerned about the way the village had grown. Much of the land had been reclaimed from the sea, with protective mangrove swamps stripped away from the coastline to make way for commercial shrimp farming.

Agustina said the development helped trigger coastal erosion. But she had never conceived of the village's vulnerability to the destructive power of a tsunami. The three waves that rolled inland created a vast wasteland with a flattened skyline akin to the Kansas prairie.


Children carry boxes of food aid distributed by the Indonesian navy in the tsunami-ravaged town of Calang, Aceh province, yesterday.

Agustina's own home, which once stood two stories high, was knocked down to the sands of the foundation. Next door was her cousin's home, where the bathroom walls somehow survived, and a book on the history of Aceh lies open on the cement floor.

Agustina's brothers returned to the village many times to search for the bodies of her father, a civil servant, and her mother, who stayed home to raise the five children.

But the brothers never found the remains of their parents, nor those of dozens of relatives.

"This has been really difficult, because we really like to take proper care of the bodies," Agustina said.

What's left of the close-knit village endures in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Banda Aceh.

Agustina notes with pride that the camp was established without the intervention of the Indonesian government. Visitors to the camp are welcomed with bananas and bowls of goat curry rich with coconut milk.

But the Lambung camp is struggling.

It houses only men and boys, with the surviving women and girls taking residence in the homes of families and friends.

As for the men, they say they need work to keep busy, and another big tent to ease nighttime crowding when some 50 bodies squish together under the same canvas.

A mountain retreat

Agustina spends much of her time in Banda Aceh, visiting the Lambung camp and working in the broader whirlwind of aid efforts.

But she sometimes retreats to Saree, a small town in the foothills of the rugged Sumatra mountains that rise south of Banda Aceh. This is a vastly different landscape from the ravaged coast. Pine trees flourish in the cool mountain air, monkeys gather around the roadsides and tigers still roam in the deeper reaches of the forests. In clearings, farmers plant corn and papayas trees that dangle large green fruit from skinny trunks.

For Agustina, this, too, is familiar ground. Saree is the home of her maternal grandmother, and other kin who now constitute most of the family's surviving lineage.

And on Friday, this is where she awoke to pass the Muslim holiday of Idul Adha, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his eldest son upon God's command.

For the Muslims of Banda Aceh, Idul Adha is typically a time of reflection as they pray for the dead and forgiveness for sins.

It also is a celebration of family as they open their doors to relatives and feast on goat, water buffalo or cows slaughtered in honor of Abraham's courage.

This year, with so many families gone, the day dawned as a reminder of the involuntary sacrifices the tsunami imposed. "Usually, we all give gifts to each other, and the children receive envelopes of money in 'paper-handshakes,' " Agustina said. "Not this year."

After the disaster, hundreds of refugees had converged on the town. More than 40 spent several days sprawled about the three-bedroom house of Agustina's 75-year-old grandmother, Hamidah Anzib.

But the refugees moved on to other areas of town, with the family reclaiming the space by the eve of Idul Adha. Anzib had rallied for the occasion to craft some special holiday fare, sweet white dumpling-like treats wrapped in banana leaves.

As the morning broke, Agustina donned traditional Muslim clothing — a white head covering and a green gown known as an abaya — and joined her brothers and sisters for the short walk to the courtyard in front of an unfinished mosque. There, they rolled out rugs on the bare earth for the outdoor morning service.

At the small service, the imam talked about Abraham and the concept of sacrifice — but not about the tsunami.

"My family, we talked about that," Agustina said. "We thought maybe nothing was said because so many people had lost family. And if anything was said, they would all cry."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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