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Tsunami-wary islanders still hiding out

Fearing a disaster that hasn't come

LABUHAN BAKTI, Indonesia -- Generations of children on Simeulue were raised on a bedtime story about a tsunami that swept across their remote tropical island a century ago, killing thousands of people. Nearly every one of the 80,000 islanders learned that if the sea ever retreated suddenly from the shore, disaster was on the way.

So when the earth shook and the ocean pulled back on the morning of Dec. 26, they ran for the hills. Although the tsunami killed 150,000 other Indonesians along the coasts of nearby Sumatra island, only seven on Simeulue died.

But the islanders ran out of luck in March when a second massive earthquake struck directly beneath them. As many as three dozen died, and the damage was far greater than in December.

That earthquake heaved much of the island 5 feet higher above the ocean, dramatically altering the contours of the land and exposing vast coral reefs and broad swaths of seafloor. It looked to the islanders as though the ocean had receded again, so they raced back to the lush jungle hills.

Five months later, many are still waiting for a tsunami that has not come. They have refused to return home and instead have settled on higher ground in tents and clapboard shanties fashioned from salvaged bits of their old lives.

Scientists have reported that the conditions that created the December tsunami were different from those in March. But thousands of the islanders have not budged. ''It's better to stay in the hills. No one will move back," said Ibu Timbel, a widowed grandmother with a towel wrapped around her head for protection against the midday sun.

''I'm afraid the tsunami will come again because, as you can see, the sea has gone away. It's dry," said Timbel, who had ventured down to this abandoned village, as some residents do during the day, to gather fallen coconuts. She narrowed her warm brown eyes, and turned and motioned with a machete toward the gently sloping mud flats.

''This has never happened to the sea before," she said.

For most of the 20th century, Simeulue had been sinking. The Southeast Asian tectonic plate on which the 60-mile-long island sits had been imperceptibly dropping, dragged down by the Indian plate below it, according to Kerry Sieh, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.

In the Dec. 26 earthquake, a chunk of the Southeast Asian plate running from Myanmar to the northern tip of Simeulue broke loose, springing upward like a diving board. The rupture displaced a huge volume of seawater, creating the wall of water that smashed into countries bordering the Indian Ocean, killing at least 200,000 people throughout the region and leaving millions homeless.

A tsunami similar to the one in December killed thousands on Simeulue in 1907. The last surviving witness, a young girl who escaped up a bamboo tree, died two years ago. Children have been brought up on local lore of how villagers went to the beach to collect fish stranded by the receding waters only to be drowned minutes later. Since then, whenever an earthquake rattles the island, villagers have checked the sea level for signs of an approaching tsunami, known in the local dialect as smoong. ''It's just how my great-grandfather and grandfather told me it would be," said Timbel, recalling the December tsunami. ''After 100 years, it finally happened."

Government officials estimate that 45,000 islanders continue to live in makeshift shelters. About 30 villages along the southern and western coasts remain deserted. Wooden walls list, corrugated metal roofs have tumbled. But unlike those who lost homes in the rest of tsunami-devastated Aceh Province, the Simeulue islanders are not staying put because of the difficulty and expense of repairs.

''Here, fear is the major problem," said Danny McAvoy of CARE, the most active international aid agency on the island.

Most of Labuhan Bakti's 200 families are camped along the sides of a hilltop road above the parched rice paddies and grazing buffalo. Shacks cobbled together from loose planks, metal, thatch and tarp crowd the roadside.

Local government officials, including Simeulue's regent, Darmili, have urged villagers to go home. ''I tell them on every occasion: 'We are islanders. We must not be afraid of the ocean because our lives depend on the ocean. Do not worry because tsunamis do not happen every day,' " Darmili said.

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