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Aid Begins to Flow Into South Asia

Distribution Is Slow as Death Toll Tops 77,000

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A01

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Dec. 29 -- Rescue flights from throughout the world delivered supplies for millions of survivors around South Asia on Wednesday, but disorganization blocked the lifesaving food, water and medicine from reaching many of those stricken and in need.

Cartons of food and water were stacked in an airplane hangar in the devastated Aceh region of northwestern Indonesia after military transports delivered tons of supplies to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, which was mostly destroyed in the Sunday earthquake and tsunami that hit minutes later.

Funeral pyres burn on the beach at Alappad, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The Indian government said it would install a $27 million early warning system to predict deadly tsunamis. (AP)

Some officials said there was dismal coordination among the Indonesian military, civilians and foreign governments. "We haven't gotten any help at all, nothing," said Yasin, 42, a displaced father who was camped out five miles from the airport. "I don't have anything left."

With concerns that disease could kill tens of thousands, the speed of the effort was crucial, especially the need to provide clean drinking water. In Sri Lanka, health authorities reported cases of measles and diarrhea, and people in many areas were prone to the threat of cholera, malaria and dehydration.

Rescuers in Indonesia saw scenes of calamity and destruction in remote western Sumatra that pushed the toll from the catastrophe beyond 77,000 dead.

[But the potential for more destruction remained in parts of South Asia. Thursday morning, the government of India's Tamil Nadu state issued a tsunami alert and warned people to leave coastal areas, the Reuters news agency reported. Police said aftershocks from Sunday's earthquake were likely to cause huge waves.]

On Wednesday, the Indonesian military finally reached the Sumatra town of Meulaboh, closest to the epicenter of the massive earthquake. Images of tragedy in Aceh province were horrific: A weeping father with a limp child in his arms waded through water past shattered buildings; houses were flattened in the mud; battered survivors lay exhausted and hungry in tents; a bulldozer dug a mass grave the size of a swimming pool in which to pile corpses covered only by plastic sheets.

There were stories of hope and survival. A 13-year-old girl survived drifting at sea for two days off the Indian island of Car Nicobar, clinging to a door, a tree and a sack. In Sri Lanka, Dayalan Sanders, a Sri Lankan-born U.S. citizen, rescued the 28 orphans in his care by reacting quickly. Spotting the tsunami, he and his wife corralled the children onto a motorboat and outran the waves, seconds before their orphanage was crushed by a 30-foot wall of water.

In the 12 countries affected by the tragedy, from East Africa to South Asia, there was little chance of finding more survivors. Tens of thousands of people were missing. Health Ministry officials said 80 percent of western Sumatra was destroyed. More than 45,000 people have been killed on the island, and a U.N. official said the death toll there could reach 80,000.

Governments pledged more than $250 million in emergency aid for stricken areas, and international transport flights carried drinking water, tarpaulins, cooking sets and medical supplies to the region.

In Washington, President Bush said the United States, India, Australia and Japan had formed a coalition to coordinate international relief efforts. He pledged a multifaceted response, and the U.S. military said it would divert several warships and helicopters to the region.

Sri Lanka on Wednesday listed more than 22,500 people dead, India close to 7,000 -- with 8,000 missing and feared dead, including many on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Thailand put its toll at more than 1,800, but some officials said that number could double. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, which is nestled between Thailand and India, the ruling military junta said about 30 people had died. But a Web site run by democracy activists in exile put the toll at 90 and unconfirmed reports suggested the number was higher.

Of 3,500 foreigners unaccounted for, mostly in Thailand, about 1,500 are Swedes, 1,000 Germans, 440 Norwegians and 200 Finns. By Wednesday, more than 1,200 bodies had been recovered at southern Thai beach resorts, but officials said the toll could be more than 3,000.


The supply effort in Indonesia moved slowly at times. An estimated 250 tons of supplies were grounded by inefficiency and lack of transportation. Indonesian officials awaited the arrival of seven transport planes from Australia and two from Malaysia and Singapore.

As relief supplies entered Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Aceh, residents obtained food and water, and stood in line for hours to get fuel. Uncollected corpses were scattered on the ground, and the city was mostly without electricity, clean water and phone service.

A navy ship carrying supplies arrived at Meulaboh, a fishing town about 90 miles from the quake's epicenter in the Indian Ocean. But the ship could not dock in the town because the port was demolished, said a presidential spokesman, Andi Mallarangeng. The military was shuttling rescuers and supplies by boat from the ship to the shore.

Most of the western coast of Sumatra sustained damage, but many towns have not been reached and their needs and the degree of destruction have not been assessed, Mallarangeng said.

Michael Elmquist, a U.N. official helping coordinate the international aid effort, said the death toll in Indonesia could reach 80,000, a much higher estimate than that offered by government officials.

The government had largely barred foreign relief and humanitarian workers from entering Aceh since the military launched a new offensive against separatist rebels in the oil-rich region last year. The rebel group, the Free Aceh Movement, declared a cease-fire following the Sunday quake and the government responded by lifting restrictions on the entry of foreign journalists and aid workers.

On Wednesday night, a particularly strong earthquake rumbled across Banda Aceh, more noticeable than a number of aftershocks registered both Tuesday and Wednesday. More than 200 people raced fearfully from the governor's mansion in Bandar Aceh. The building has been housing about 150 refugees, 50 officials, 20 policemen and a number of journalists.


In the Thai province of Phangnga, the hardest-hit area of the Southeast Asian country, army crews used front-end loaders to clear away rubble from pulverized holiday villas along the Andaman Sea. Rescue teams searched for bodies in collapsed hotels and houses in southern beach towns.

Thai authorities said that as many as 2,000 people likely died on the popular shoreline, most of them foreign tourists.

Thai officials said 473 foreigners from 36 countries were confirmed dead. But that number was expected to increase considerably, with as many as 200 foreign hotel guests feared dead at a Sofitel chain resort in the area.

"There is still hope for a portion of those missing, unfortunately a minority, several dozen," said Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the Accor hotel group that owns the hotel, according to the Associated Press. "For the rest, we have little hope, except for individual miracles."

As bodies piled up at makeshift morgues established on the grounds of Buddhist temples, foreigners and Thais wandered about in search of missing friends and relatives.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels, whose two-decade civil war for autonomy in the island's north and east is under a fragile cease-fire, said almost 10,000 people had died -- nearly half of Sri Lanka's death toll -- in territory they control. Separated from the rest of the country by a mined border, they appealed for help on Wednesday as they dug mass graves for thousands of putrefying corpses.

The reclusive Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, made a rare personal statement asking for international help.

"The devastation caused by this tidal surge has exacerbated the sufferings of our people already affected by a war that continued for over 20 years and has torn asunder our nation," he said.

The group's main naval base was demolished, as was part of its fleet. All 135 children at an orphanage run by female Tigers were swept away to their deaths.

"We have only found bodies so far," said Col. Soosai, head of the Tigers' navy arm, according to the Reuters news service. "We have not received any aid from the government."

Wildlife officials in Sri Lanka were pleasantly surprised that they found no signs of large-scale animal deaths from the tsunami, suggesting that the animals may have sensed the wave coming and fled to higher ground.

"This is very interesting. I am finding bodies of humans, but I have yet to see a dead animal," said Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, whose Jetwing Eco Holidays ran a hotel in the Yala National Park, according to the AP. Wijeyeratne said his hotel was destroyed.


The Indian government said it would install a $27 million early warning system to predict deadly tsunamis and would have it in place within three years.

Of the countries affected by Sunday's tsunami, only Thailand belonged to an existing warning system among the Pacific Rim countries. India's system would be independent of the Pacific Rim program because that one does not monitor the Indian Ocean, said Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, about 900 miles from the Indian mainland, residents reported that the sea swept more than a mile inland in some places, stripping away undergrowth and felling trees. The islands' remote location hid the extent of the devastation. Now, as relief teams arrive, officials say the waters killed at least 3,000 people in the islands. Some unconfirmed estimates put the death toll as high as 10,000, out of 350,000 inhabitants.

The Indian Ocean disaster extended beyond Asia to Africa, where U.N. officials said as many as 50,000 people in Somalia are in danger. Houses and coastal roads were swept away. "They are now without shelter, water, food and medicine," the U.N. World Food Program reported.

Correspondents Peter S. Goodman in Khaolak, Thailand, and Alan Sipress in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company