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After The Tsunami, Aceh Plays Host To First-Ever Lifeguards

Indonesian volunteer lifeguards Saddam (L), Rosmiati (C) and Agus Sriyana prepare for their training on a 2004 Tsunami devastated beach of Lhok Nga, Aceh province, 06 August 2006. At Lhok Nga beach, about a dozen red-and-yellow clad Acehnese are taking their lessons as Aceh's first-ever lifeguards. Photo courtesy of Sophie Boudre and AFP.
by Sophie Boudre
Lhok Nga, Indonesia (AFP) Aug 15, 2006
When the December 2004 tsunami wiped out their village in Indonesia's Aceh, Taufik and Agus ran for their lives. Now, as Aceh's first-ever lifeguards, they are saving them. At Lhok Nga beach, the pair are among a dozen red-and-yellow clad Acehnese dashing into the thundering waves of the Indian Ocean at the call of a whistle, braving a fear of the water and also -- for the women -- smashing stereotypes.

In the weeks after the devastating tsunami, which lashed westernmost Aceh and killed some 168,000 people, this scenic, mountain-fringed beach was a horrific mess of corpses and muddy rubble.

Today, it is a playground for families and teenagers who make the short jaunt from the provincial capital Banda Aceh for daytrips, while local surfers and foreign humanitarian workers also hang out, overseen by the lifeguards.

Like the other young Acehnese in his crew, Taufik is here to train as a volunteer. The 16-year-old, who lost his younger brother and sister in the tsunami, was himself carried away by the waves before he was rescued.

"I want to help people in return," he says, brushing the dripping sea water from his face.

Agus Sriyana, 18, also lost a brother. The dark-eyed teenager remembers that when training started in March of this year, "everyone was thinking of the tsunami".

"I was scared," she admits. "Now I'm fine, although it's still a bit hard to swim in big surf."

Agus and her fellow lifeguards, mostly young people from the devastated beach community, are training for a bronze medallion, the first stage in fully qualifying as a lifeguard.

Aceh boasts 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) of coastline -- more than half of which was hit by the tsunami -- but they are the only existing lifeguard group, according to their US trainer Peter Elefson, 23.

The tall American, who has lived in Indonesia for nine years and works for a small non-government organisation, says bringing people back to the beach after the tsunami was his first motive in getting a lifeguard team set up here.

With the help of locals, he set up Aceh Water Sports, an association which generates revenue for the lifeguards through renting donated surfboards and also sponsors activities such as swimming classes for the coastal community. -- 'You want me to swim over there?' -- Despite the endless coast, being able to swim well is not a common skill in Aceh -- even among the thousands of fishermen -- and the lifeguards too had to start with improving their very basic swimming ability.

"They would scream: 'You want me to swim over there?' " Elefson tells AFP, referring to the shock they showed when he started them off.

Rosmiati, 29, is one of the three female members of the group. She says as the sea is traditionally considered the domain of men in the staunchly Muslim province, she had to battle with her husband before she could join.

"'You have a family!' he would tell me. I would reply that I could do both: look after my two children and come to training three times a week," boasts the young woman. "Luckily, my mother is there when I'm at the beach."

Rosmiati, unlike Agus, wears a red swimming cap to cover her long hair plus a jilbab, the Muslim veil, over it -- although she proudly sports boardshorts showing off her calves.

Under sharia or Islamic law, which is being gradually implemented across the province, women are supposed to cover their bodies from head to ankle.

"When we started, authorities were worried we would dress them Baywatch-style," says Elefson, referring to the US TV series featuring curvaceous female lifeguards in barely-there swimsuits.

"But so far the sharia police have been quiet," the ex-professional pool lifesaver says.

"It's hot and too hard to swim with a jilbab on," chimes in bare-headed Agus.

The tentacles of Baywatch have stretched even here, hitting Indonesian TV screens late at night, sparking certain hopes.

"Here in Aceh we'll never get helicopters and jet-skis to rescue people!" says Samsuar Saddam, a 36-year-old veteran Lhok Nga surfer, with some disappointment. -- Many rescues daily from "death zone" -- Sitting in an Indonesian Red Cross ambulance stationed on the beach, 21-year-old Haris says the crew are still a novelty.

"If we use the whistle they think we are parking attendants for the beach," says the health worker of the swimmers.

With the help of the Australian Red Cross, one ambulance linked to the main hospital in Banda Aceh is stationed every weekend at Lhok Nga, assisting with basic needs such as CPR and resuscitation.

And the crew is not just there for decoration: some eight people have drowned at Lhok Nga since the tsunami, including three foreigners, according to local police.

On a busy afternoon, the beach can see up to 15 rescues. Signs put up by the International Medical Corps (IMC) warn of dangerous currents and rips, but few seem to read them.

A panicked Azahari, 19, is alarmed as two Red Cross workers give his friend oxygen after the lifeguards have plucked him from the surf and brought him over to the ambulance.

"His trousers were very heavy, he couldn't swim and kept calling me, but I am not a good swimmer so I couldn't do anything for him," he stutters, saying it was the first time the two boys from South Aceh had come to the beach.

"You can be 10 metres from the shore, a 6-foot wave smashes and drags you underground through the rip currents into the death zone, breaks your neck and you're gone," says David Lloyd, 46, a mapping consultant who used to surf years ago at nearby Nias island, which was also hit by the tsunami.

Wanting to help in some way after the disaster, the Australian campaigned at home to bring back 15 surfboards and a rescue board donated by fellow surfers and Adelaide's South Port Lifesaving club.

Surfer solidarity is still in motion, with a group from Surf Lifesaving Australia also committed to regularly come and train the Acehnese, Lloyd says.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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