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Mosque that survived tsunami draws tourists

To many Muslims, 'ground zero' site has divine message

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Just to the north of the mosque at the tip of this northern Sumatra city, the waves of the Indian Ocean gently lap the shore. In every other direction, all the way to the horizon, lie the ruins from last month's tsunami.

Somehow, the Baiturrahim Mosque stands. Many in Banda Aceh call it "ground zero" of the tsunami. Its astonishing survival draws hundreds of people every day to take pictures, to stare, and to pray.

Some are volunteers who came from all over Indonesia and the world to help the survivors. Some are people who once lived near here in the Ulee-Lheue (pronounced ul-lay-LAY) neighborhood. And some are tourists.

This may be the disaster's first tourist site -- or its first pilgrimage destination.

"This is a miracle," said Alamsyah, 36, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. He drove six hours from the community of Lhokseumaw to see the site yesterday and will drive home today. "I feel relieved to see it myself. It's much more devastating than the pictures you see."

He then proceeded to shoot his own pictures. He shot some of the mosque, and a friend shot some with Alamsyah smiling in front of it.

No one expects many tourists from outside Sumatra in the foreseeable future to come to Banda Aceh, which suffered more deaths than any other coastal area affected by the tsunami. No one expects those who come from the province to make much of an economic impact on the city.

But no one doubts the drawing power: The tsunami's destruction is in full panoramic view here. And yet the sparing of the mosque raises deep questions.

The two-story white mosque is battered, but six times a day a handful of Muslims come to pray on its swept marble floor. Many of its walls are broken, but the one on the northwest side is intact. All the buildings between the mosque and the shore, 20 yards away, are leveled. All that remains in this space are the concrete foundation slabs and a few scattered shards of pottery.

For many Muslims, this proves God's will -- that God saved his building and left almost all else rubble, perhaps, some said, to send a message that some evil had taken root among the people and that they must become more faithful.

"I want to know why this mosque is still standing. By any calculation, it shouldn't stand," said Efendi, 36, of Jakarta, who volunteered to work on relief efforts.

Holding a video camera, he proceeded to tape his friend, Fajar, 30, a consultant for a construction company.

"For me, looking at the building, it's beyond logic," Fajar said, the camera capturing his analysis. "It's right on the beach. Here, look at the well of the mosque. It was only covered by a piece of plywood, but the water is still OK. This is to show God has saved this."

He gestured to a nearby bridge, partly destroyed by a wave that may have been 15 feet high. "The bridge was badly affected. But the building is almost perfect. As a Muslim, we have a saying that we have to learn from things that happened. It's just not logical what happened. So our lesson is to help our brothers. That's what God wants."

Nearby, Halimah, 53, who traveled from the northern city of Medan to help relatives, said she wanted to come to the site since she arrived a week ago.

"This is the hardest-hit area. But I think this is also God showing his greatness," she said. "Here, it looks like a war zone. But this is his house. He saved it. We feel we are like pilgrims coming here. It feels like a sacred place."

Non-Muslims viewed the mosque differently.

Three Australian military officers stood on a concrete foundation nearby. They were part of a large contingent of Australian military surveying the ruins.

Asked why the mosque stood, Sergeant Kasey Northausen said there was no great mystery. "In every disaster you have buildings like this one," she said. "You have whole areas destroyed and in the middle, one building is still standing." She said it must have been part of the specific patterns of the water's force.

Corporal Thomas Allison suggested that the mosque's architecture, specifically its open first floor, allowed the huge waves to flow through, leaving the building intact.

A group of residents approached them and asked whether they would pose for pictures. The Australians obliged, but Northausen said afterward: "We're not spectators here. We're here to do work."

Others came for pictures. Vanloads emptied. Groups gathered together for a photograph of themselves in the ruins and in front of the mosque.

From one car, Giffari, 53, and his wife, Indra, 45, watched. They took no pictures. They did not get out of the car.

"We wanted to come to the beach and see what's left, but there's nothing left," Giffari said. "We lost one of our children here."

Indra began to cry. "I feel there's no way I can live here anymore," she said. "It's too hard."

But her husband marveled at the mosque, staring with his mouth open. "Here," he said, "I feel the greatness of God."

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com

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