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Terror lingers as tsunami survivors rebuild lives

From Alex Quade

Of all the nations struck by last year's Indian Ocean tsunamis, Indonesia has paid the highest human price. The worst devastation occurred in Aceh province. 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.

Nasir, monkey
Nasir, 13, plays with a monkey he found after the tsunami.


United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (CNN) -- As tsunami waters roared through his Banda Aceh home last December, Nasir grabbed his two sisters and sought shelter in the local mosque.

Just 13 years old, Nasir held their hands tight as water flooded the mosque, rising higher and higher, eventually pulling them under.

"They couldn't breathe and were limp. I didn't let go of their hands. I held them tight. Then I couldn't breathe anymore, so I let go," said Nasir, who like many Indonesians goes only by his first name.

Somebody pulled Nasir from the water. He doesn't know who. His sisters, though, were not rescued. And as far as Nasir knew then, both his parents died too.

"The last time I saw my father was when he said 'goodbye' before going to work. 'Take care of your sisters,' he said. Then he left. Half an hour later, the water came," Nasir said.

A few days later, Nasir's mother showed up at his refugee tent. He was overjoyed at seeing her alive. But she was so distraught over losing her husband and daughters that Nasir had to take care of her.

Now, one year after the tsunami wreaked havoc with their lives, Nasir and his mother live with 1,500 other tsunami survivors in a hilly refugee camp outside Banda Aceh, more than one hour away from the shore.

'Children ... are more vulnerable'

Stories like Nasir's are all too common in Indonesia's Aceh province. And Nasir is better off than many other young survivors.

That's because thousands of children in the countries around the Indian Ocean lost both of their parents in the tsunami, according to Yin Yin Nwe, coordinator of tsunami support at UNICEF, a nonprofit organization that fights children's poverty.

"The impact is hard on children," Nwe said. "These are poor regions....Children in this region are more vulnerable."

Nwe said the vast majority of these orphans have been taken in by relatives or absorbed back into their communities, not adopted by foreigners or people who didn't know them before the storm. She said that in Aceh, for example, local communities are close-knit and religious, which gives the orphans a built-in support system.

Throughout the region, UNICEF and many other organizations are helping these children rebuild their lives. They provide counseling and financial support, and they are working hard to improve the infrastructure by rebuilding homes, roads and water systems.

A group of young entrepreneurs in Banda Aceh is even trying to develop a city-wide wireless network to enable easy access to the Internet.

"Our biggest challenge is to change the opinion that the wireless system is not needed by the victims of the tsunami. This system is, in fact, needed by all the institutions trying to help the victims," said Wibisono Ilarius, one of the network's developers.

Still, Aceh remains a broken province.

Many survivors live with the knowledge their relatives and friends are buried in mass graves throughout the area. They were buried with no identification and often without the proper Muslim ceremony they would have desired.

Recurring dreams

Today, cows roam and fruit and vegetables grow above the most notorious mass grave, where more than 54,000 victims are buried. The owner of the land says the bodies were dumped there without his permission and he wants to be paid.

This leaves little solace for survivors who come to visit their loved ones.

"They just threw them away," said Wallace, a college student who thinks his mother is buried on the land. "The process was horrible. In Islam, we bury people with white clothing. But there were no burial clothes. I know that my mother was thrown from a tractor like that here."

Nasir, the young boy who helps care for his mother, doesn't know where his father and sisters are buried or whether they were ever even found. He has started going to school again and wants to get a job picking coconuts, but he fears another tsunami will disrupt his life.

"I've had the same dream more than 10 times," he said. "When I wake up, I wonder if it's going to happen again or not. Last night, I dreamed the tsunami was happening here at the new camp."

But there is one thing that brings Nasir great happiness in his refugee life -- his pet monkey.

"This is my monkey named Joy," Nasir said. "I got Joy from the tsunami."

CNN's Jason White contributed to this report.

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