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WORLD

Mass grave is now green with life

Hope takes root in a land devastated by tragedy

By Alex Quade
CNN

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering the news. Programming note: CNN reporters and survivors of the tsunami share their stories from a year ago and through their year of recovery, "CNN Presents," Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m. ET.

Alex Quade
CNN's Alex Quade reports in front of a field of debris in the days after the tsunami.

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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNN) -- The smell is gone.

That's the first I noticed nearly one year after the tsunami decimated this city. Death no longer fills the air. We no longer have to rub mentholated rub up our noses or wear masks like we did when following the body-baggers after the tsunami.

The killer wave that ravaged this part of the world hit Banda Aceh hardest. There are more than 90,000 dead or missing in this city alone. In the days after the tsunami, death was everywhere we looked, everywhere we stepped.

On this trip, one of the first places CNN cameraman David Allbritton and I returned to is a mass grave. A year ago, when we were here, it was a place of sheer horror. Tractors dumped more than 54,000 tsunami victims in the field without identification, dignity or ceremony. Now, it's a green field where papaya trees grow.

While at the grave, a teenager named Wallace came up to me wanting to practice his English. I asked why he was here. He started crying. He said he believes 200 members of his family, including his mother, are buried here. I don't speak Indonesian, but his pain and suffering broke through the language barrier loud and clear.

I came back to Banda Aceh to track down the children I'd met in the days after the wave struck. At the time, many children were too traumatized to speak. I wanted to see how they'd managed since then without families to take care of them, homes to live in and ways to earn money.

I went back to one of the city's refugee camps trying to find Nasir, a 13-year-old boy we met on our last trip. We thought he might be somewhere among the 4,500 tsunami victims still living in tents there (nearly 68,000 people still live in camps around Banda Aceh a year after the tsunami). Talk about a needle in a haystack.

Surprisingly, the people at the camp remembered me and my blonde hair. They thought Nasir might be at another camp away in the mountains. We went there, and miraculously, we found him.

Nasir told me it's a daily struggle in the camp. He wants to get a job to support his mother, his only remaining family member. But finding work is difficult. Only 5 percent of the people at the camp have a job. I asked him what has helped him get through this year as a refugee. His answer: a monkey he found and turned into his best friend.

While I was interviewing Nasir, his pet monkey, who he named Joy, climbed up and attacked his microphone. It chewed the windscreen right off. Then it playfully lunged at me and the camera. It helped lighten Nasir's powerful story.

I also tracked down three children orphaned by the storm: 10-year-old Eka, 14-year-old Nana, and 16-year-old Marwadi. The two sisters and their brother outran the wave on a small motorbike.

Last year, before I met them, they'd been turned away from an aid station seeking food and clothing. At the time, David Allbritton and I were so incensed by this we went back to that aid station with the camera rolling.

This time, with the camera watching over their shoulders, the children were welcomed. Each was given a bag of cast-off clothing from the United States. It was an incongruous scene: Marwadi standing there amidst the rubble, smiling because he received a ratty, old T-shirt with sweat stains and holes, with the logo "UNLV" (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) on the front.

That was the last time I'd seen these three siblings. On this follow-up trip, I was happy to see they had managed to stay together. After losing their parents, they did not want to be separated. Nana, the older sister, had an offer to live with a family in Jakarta, leaving her little sister and brother behind. She refused. The children now live with an uncle and go to new schools.

Nana and Marwadi have stepped into the role of parents to Eka, their 10-year-old sister. Eka has had the toughest time coping with the loss of their parents. She has become moody and shy.

But for all these young people I met again one year later, there is hope. Wallace, from the mass grave, is studying to be a computer programmer. Nasir, from the camp, wants to be a policeman some day. Marwadi wants to be a doctor; his sister Nana a nurse. And little Eka says she wants to be a hospital manager so she can boss them around.

One year after the great tsunami, these children are all just trying to make it from one day to the next. They are all survivors.

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