The health ministry said on Wednesday it expected the national death toll from Sunday's magnitude 9 earthquake and ensuing flooding to exceed 45,000.

While there are no accurate figures for the number of people who have been left homeless, the 12-hour drive from Medan, in north Sumatra, to points north of the refinery city of Lhokseumawe offered a vivid snapshot of the plight of ordinary residents struggling to cope in extraordinary circumstances.

The trans-Sumatran highway links Medan with the Acehnese capital, Banda Aceh.

The route to Lhokseumawe offers stereotypes typical of glossy calendars: ocean vistas, meandering rivers, and images of men and muddy buffalo working together across great, sweeping fields of rice. These bucolic images end abruptly roughly 60km south of Lhokseumawe as the force of the tsunami becomes apparent.

Hellish scenes

Great piles of mud and rubbish cover the yards of simple concrete homes painted vivid colours of sky and surf.

Residents and soldiers continue
to work side by side

It is the beginning of a descent into a dimension of hell. Very little damage here can be blamed on the earthquake itself. Instead, thick mud littered with wood and fishing lines fill homes as far as a kilometre from the high-water mark along the coast. 

In consecutive towns one sees dispossessed people, some asking for handouts along the highway.

An estimated 25,000 people have been forced from their homes in their communities around Lhokseumawe and tent cities flourish in the many mosques that line the route.

Seeking sanctuary

These buildings are the traditional refuge of long-suffering citizens of Aceh who are frequently trapped between the Indonesian army and separatist rebels who have waged a near 30-year campaign against the government in Jakarta.

In Lhoksukon, about 45km south of Lhokseumawe, elderly women in frayed sarongs wash their family's few remaining clothes in the gutters in front of an emerald green mosque. Similar themes unfold in the town's other mosques and public spaces.

In the army parade grounds across the highway, khaki-clad men struggle to erect large dining-hall-sized tents to replace the simple blue and orange tarpaulins slung between trees that many families are using for shelter.

Their surviving livestock - buffalo and cattle - graze nearby. Here local residents and civil servants pitch in, delivering dried noodles and drink cartons.

Shortages

The lack of drinking water is a serious problem across the province where municipal water supplies have been sullied.

Meulaboh town in Aceh province
shows little signs of human life

If the situation is difficult on the east cost of Sumatra it pales in comparison to that on the devastated west which bore the full brunt of both the earthquake and the tsunami.

Vice-President Yusuf Kalla, who flew over the town of Meulaboh, told reporters in Jakarta there were few signs of life there. As many as 10,000 people are feared dead in that single town.

In the provincial capital Banda Aceh, where an estimated 9000 people lost their lives, corpses remain uncollected in the streets. There is no fuel, water and little food.

Aid officials say that even if they could deliver truck loads of supplies to the area, there is insufficient petrol for the return trip and have requested an immediate airlift of supplies.

Survivors' tales

Meanwhile the survivors in the village of Cut Seurani are living in desperate conditions. They have received virtually no assistance beyond donations from drivers passing by on their way to Banda Aceh.

The smell of death hangs over the village. More than 400 bodies have been recovered and every 10 minutes a battered ambulance arrives at a local mosque to unload more.

Every dwelling in the village not made of brick or stone has been destroyed and many of the sturdier structures will have to be demolished.

Izwar Yahia, 50, whose two younger brothers and a close cousin are among the dead, said: "All that keeps me moving now is the desire to help other people in my village who have not yet found their loved ones' bodies."

The body of his 26-year-old brother had to be recovered from the top of a palm tree; such was the force of the tide.

Tented haven

Roughly 1200 residents of a tough little fishing community, Pusung, on the borders of Lhokseumawe, by contrast are living in army tents in a camp that is a model of efficiency, run jointly by the army and the Indonesian Red Cross.

The lack of petrol is hampering
the relief effort

Sitting cross-legged in one of the tents surrounded by the few possessions she rescued from her home, 35-year-old Halima counts her blessings.

She fled with her family ahead of the rising flood waters and, despite the damage to her home, she believes it is salvageable.

"There are many people who are suffering far more than we are," she says, drawing her six-year-old son close.

"People have lost their families; children have no parents. We are too scared to return home at this time but at least we still have a home that we can go back to one day," she told Aljazeera.net.