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Tenacious newspaper is back on the stands

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- The tsunami waves crashed with awesome force into the offices of Aceh's only newspaper, picking up its two huge printing presses like toys and tumbling them into the parking lot. The human toll was worse: 100 staff members are feared dead.

But six days after the disaster, Serambi Indonesia -- which has survived threats from the government as well as rebels for its hard-hitting coverage of this war-torn corner of Indonesia -- was back in circulation.

"Cholera is threatening our refugees," read the banner headline of the first edition, a slimmed-down version printed in Aceh Province's second-largest city, Lhokseumawe, and distributed free.

Also on the front page: a telephone number and message urging employees to call in to let editors know they are alive.

"We were badly hit, but the spirit of our journalists got this edition out," said Ismail Syah, the paper's Lhokseumawe bureau chief. "We need to give information to the people and allow our employees to get in touch with us."

Those in the media say it will be a blow to free speech in one of Indonesia's most tightly controlled and trouble-prone regions if Serambi cannot get up and running again in its previous tenacious form.

"Serambi has played an extraordinary role in Aceh, not only in providing information and education on the conflict but also in brightening the minds of Acehnese people," said Eddy Suprapto, of the Alliance of Independent Journalists. "It is a big loss. We may find qualified and skilled journalists, but it is not easy to find those with idealism like those at Serambi."

The Dec. 26 earthquake that sent walls of water crashing onto shores around the Indian Ocean was centered off the western coast of Aceh, a province on the northern tip of Sumatra island. Coastal towns staggered by the quake were among the first hit by the waves. Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and home to Serambi's main office, was badly damaged, and villages along the west coast were destroyed.

More than a week after the tsunami disaster, which is thought to have killed about 100,000 of Sumatra's 4.3 million people, it is not clear how many Serambi journalists and other employees died.

Syah said about 60 percent of the paper's 270 staff members have not been accounted for. Editors hope many haven not been able to check in because phone lines are down in many parts of the province. But Syah estimated that the final death toll for the paper would be about 100.

Along with the newspaper's two-story offices, a housing compound where many of its employees lived was leveled.

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