Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Dina Astita

You've never heard of Dina Astita. She's an assistant English teacher in the remote town of Calang on Indonesia's Sumatra island. But Astita, 30, earned our attention as a survivor of the Dec. 26 tsunami, part of a group whose suffering and courage touched the hearts of people around the world and triggered what is surely the greatest ever outpouring of aid. Astita recounts with little emotion those awful early days after the tragedy when the death toll in Calang kept climbing, finally reaching 6,435, nearly 90% of the town's inhabitants. Although other surviving teachers were more senior, Astita was elected to coordinate the effort to restart schooling, a role that she says turned her into a beggar — "I asked for help wherever I could get it: the soldiers, the ngos, anyone, over and over again" — and a bully. "Sometimes my colleagues complained I push too hard," she says with a rare smile.

Her appeals worked. Astita sits in an open-sided tent pitched amid the rubble of what had been downtown. Around her are a dozen other tents, donated by an Austrian firm, each filled with children sitting in neat rows before a teacher. According to her meticulous records, exactly 801 students, ages 5 to 18, attend classes each day. They share desks and other materials, but almost everyone has an exercise book and something to write with. And what of Astita's family? "We never found my three children," she says. "They are lost, but that's all the more reason to make sure the surviving children do not to lose their chance at an education, their chance at life."

From the Archive
Sea of Sorrow: The world suffers an epic tragedy as a tsunami spreads death across Asia. An on-the-scene look at how it happened—and whether the carnage could have been avoided