Banten, Indonesia – Ahmad Hidayat’s smile seemed strangely incongruous given the mess that lay around him.
I have seen that smile before in Indonesia – a natural response, no matter the situation, maybe out of innate shyness or deference when talking to a stranger. And here, standing beside the dripping pile of clothes, home appliances, children’s books and toys, Ahmad grinned broadly.
Helped by his wife and his uncle, he was busy dragging out the waterlogged contents of his home to see what could be salvaged.
The building was swamped on the night of December 22, when tsunami waves believed to have been triggered by an erupting volcano surged over the thin strip of beach that separated Ahmad’s home in the village of Sambolo from the sea.
At least Ahmad’s roof was intact, giving him the chance to dry out some of his goods.
His neighbours’ homes were missing roofs altogether, so their possessions were likely to stay wet until the end of the rainy season, still many weeks away.
Behind Ahmad’s smile was the pain of knowing just how vulnerable people were here, with the monster of Anak Krakatoa volcano rumbling just over the horizon.
“This is my home. I have no other place to go,” he said with a shrug. “But if I had money I’d buy somewhere safer to live.”
For many people living along the Sunda Strait, which separates the islands of Java and Sumatra, the sea is their only livelihood.
From the fishermen to the family-owned resorts and restaurants that dotted the shoreline, people have no choice but to resume their previous ways of life.
“There was no warning at all,” said Babay Halimatusadiah, the owner of a small food stall. “It happened suddenly.”
She was standing beside her husband in the little food stall they own, set back about 100 metres from the beach in Carita district. On the day the tsunami hit, they were serving evening diners at the same spot.
Two days after the disaster, they were already back in business. The couple, however, said they would be a lot happier with a better early warning system.
“I hope the government can use newer technology,” Halimatusadiah’s husband Hasbialoh Asnawi told Al Jazeera.
“Because we’re afraid there’s going to be worse in future.”
The lack of a tsunami warning has sparked a fierce debate in Indonesia about the country’s preparedness for such disasters, given how prone the sprawling archipelago is to earthquakes and destructive waves.
Much of the current warning system was put in place after the so-called Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 – a far more devastating event that struck more than a dozen countries along the shores of the Indian Ocean. It claimed an estimated 200,000 lives in Indonesia alone.
Coincidentally, the 14th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami fell on Wednesday, as the clean up from the latest disaster continued.
On both occasions, the full force a tsunami can unleash could be seen in the damage done to the bigger, more solidly built homes and blocks in holiday resorts.
This time too, whole walls were swept away, exposing the rooms, furniture and toilet fixtures inside.
And then, as now, it is the poorer, more vulnerable communities who bore the brunt.
Stretches of coastline now stripped clean of any signs of life were once thriving communities of simple huts made from bamboo, thatch and metal sheeting.
The piles of debris swept back 100-200 metres inland were the only reminders of the people who have been killed, injured and displaced.
In the town of Labuan, a couple of kilometres inland, thousands of homeless people were waiting to see when and how they can return home. The area is only a few metres above the sea level, but it was enough to offer a level of security for people who have experienced what the sea is capable of.
In one of the temporary camps that have sprung up, Watinah – the wife of a fisherman who now has no way to support herself and her three children – was watching the monotonous rain outside.
“I don’t know how long we are going to stay here,” she said. “We haven’t been back to see the condition of our home because we’re still afraid.”
Just at that moment, more bad news arrived. Al Jazeera producer Syarina’s device began beeping. The alert level on Anak Krakatoa had just been raised to Level 3, one below the maximum 4.
The people have reason to fear. the Anak Krakatoa still rumbles ominously.