Tens of thousands die after tsunamis devastate Southeast Asia. The sheer scope of diaster left the rest of the world facing a crucial question: how best to help?
ON THE ASSEMBLY line of tragedy that was the Sri Lankan coast last week, residents of Kalmunai were enduring a special kind of hell. As if the near obliteration of their seaside village wasn’t enough, survivors returned to their ruined town to find older, long buried human remains mixed among the recently deceased—under capsized fishing boats, inside collapsed houses and pinned beneath shattered chunks of wharf. “The town’s burial grounds are all near the ocean,” explains 40-year-old Jififry Uthumalebbe, a Torontonian raised in Kalmunai. When the giant waves came, he says, they disinterred corpses of local people who had been laid to rest generations ago, throwing all the bodies onto higher ground. “Now,” he says, “they have to be sorted out.”
Among the newly dead: a staggering 11 members of Uthumalebbe’s extended family, who were caught unaware as the earthquake-driven surge steamrolled an uncle’s house, located just a few metres from the shoreline. His brother, mother and father, who live in a different home, were able to escape. “But my mother won’t go back,” he says. “She knows that if she opens a door, there’s a good chance there’ll be a body behind it.”
Such is the nature of the calamity unfolding in South Asia: just when the horror reaches incomprehensible proportions, fate delivers more, making prospects of recovery seem like a distant dream. The disaster, caused by a 9-magnitude earthquake centred in the southeast Indian Ocean, already counts as one of the worst in history, dwarfing any others known to have been caused by tsunamis. The killer waves battered a wide area that included the south shore of India, Myanmar, even the east coast of Africa. At week’s end, the death toll was predicted to surpass 125,000 (next worse, by comparison, was a series of waves that struck Portugal after an earthquake in 1755, killing an estimated 60,000). Some 80,000 were lost in Indonesia, along with another 27,300 in Sri Lanka and 7,500 in India. Jet-setters vacationing in Thailand’s sun-drenched playground of Phuket survived by clinging to palm trees, while untold thousands in northern Sumatra were engulfed in their homes. Many victims had no idea what hit them.
Aid organizations and the international community know their job now—sorting corpses; burying the dead; finding homes for orphaned children. The question is where to start. “It’s just enormous,” says Roger Markowski, humanitarian program co-ordinator for Oxfam International, speaking from Medan, Sumatra. “Money is no longer the issue. We now have to look at the best possible means to help these people.” In parts of Indonesia, he notes, the force of the waves wiped out entire communities, killing tens of thousands and leaving still more displaced. Meulaboh, a town of 120,000 on Sumatra’s northern tip, was thought to have been obliterated, with an estimated 40,000 dead, meaning relief workers will have to start a community from scratch, as bulldozers dig mass graves nearby. “To go there,” says Markowski, a Montrealer, “you have to be very strong psychologically.”
Under the best of circumstances, getting help to the affected regions will be tough. Many communities simply lack the roads and airstrips to support a major aid effort, while other places, like northern Sri Lanka, have been riven by long-running civil wars, which have a way of turning crises into political footballs. Until last Tuesday—two days after the tsunamis hit—humanitarian groups and journalists were still barred from Sumatra’s western Aceh province, where the Indonesian government has been waging a three decade war against rebels. Add the damage wrought by the waves, and you have an uneasy guessing game: dozens of towns were cut off as the water wiped out roads and phone lines, so relief workers must now reach them to determine the extent of the damage. “This isn’t something like a hurricane, where people have some notice, and are able to prepare,” says Suzanne Charest, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Red Cross. “That’s what makes this case exceptional, and the level of destruction in some countries— the death toll—it’s really quite unbearable.”
If there’s good news, it’s the sudden abundance of cash to fund relief efforts. After initially offering token amounts, western governments have opened up their treasuries as the true scale of the disaster emerged. The $123 million pledged by the international community early in the week steadily ballooned in ensuing days, with Ottawa kicking in $40 million, putting a moratorium on debt owed by tsunami-hit countries, and promising to match dollar-for-dollar donations made to NGOs over and above the $40 million. Aid organizations were swamped with donations, including some $14 million to the Canadian Red Cross and lesser amounts to organizations like Oxfam, World Vision and the Salvation Army. At a Toronto Tamil radio station, children arrived with piggy banks, helping raise some $250,000 intended for northern Sri Lanka. “We’re not even a charity, so we can’t give receipts,” says Ilayabharathy Sivasothy, chief executive of the Canadian Tamil Broadcasting Corporation. “So this is really remarkable.”
Politics, as ever, has reared its head where aid is concerned. Sivasothy stresses that his station is directing its money to the north because it expects the Sri Lankan government, dominated by southern Sinhalese, to withhold aid money from northern Tamils. “We’ve been fighting this government 30 years,” he says. “If you give them the money, they’re going to take care of their own.” With these tensions in mind, Red Cross, Oxfam and World Vision officials say they’re determined their portion of the aid will reach the needy to supply potable water, antibiotics and latrines. And in a positive sign, the Indonesian government declared a ceasefire with its rebels, allowing relief agencies to move into the region—a deal that could prove pivotal if it holds. UN officials are planning a New Year’s appeal they say could exceed US$1.6 billion. The truce will help reassure countries who doubt their money is reaching those who need it most.
No amount of funds, however, can ease the anguish of families around the world waiting for word from loved ones. Uthumalebbe is among scores of Toronto-area Sri Lankans who worked the phones in hopes of contacting family last week, while others sought word from relatives who’d been vacationing in Southeast Asia. In a few cases, the news was tragic: by press time, Foreign Affairs officials had confirmed the deaths of four Canadians, with as many as 85 missing or unaccounted for. Some may never be found, a federal government source acknowledged in an interview with Maclean’s: given the health threat posed by the decaying bodies, it’s possible that remains will be buried before they are identified. “If Thai authorities have the impression from the appearance of a body that it is a tourist, we’re told they will most likely set it aside for identification,” the source said. “But you can understand the position they’re in.”
Many of those who did survive have contacted relatives with tales ranging from the inspirational to the outright bizarre. Doug and Joan Glover of Trail, B.C., read with disbelief an email sent by their 35-year-old son, Mike, who was on his way to Krabi, Thailand, when the waves tossed his taxi into a construction site. “The car tipped about 45 degrees onto a retaining wall with a bunch of pieces of rebar sticking out of the top,” Glover said in his message. “One of them punched through the cab door and into my side.” When the water receded, he said, the car righted itself and the steel bar snapped off—part of it still in Glover’s midriff. Fortunately, it punctured only skin and fatty tissue. After a long wait at a nearby hospital, a doctor removed the bar and stitched him up.
Mark VanderKam of Kitchener, Ont., narrowly escaped the tsunamis while kayaking in southern Thailand near Phi Phi Island, an area made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach. The 42-year-old executive of a high-tech company had seen the surge building several kilometres out to sea, yet didn’t believe his eyes. By blind luck, he went ashore to buy some sunblock and was able to escape the waves. “I missed being caught by just minutes, as did my friends,” he said in an email from the resort area of Ao Nang, where he was staying. “That earthquake was probably building pressure for thousands of years. If it had let go 10 minutes sooner, I would not be writing this account right now.”
Such stories circulated madly last week, powered in large part by the Web. But it was also the Internet that put faces to the tragedy, because for every close call there seemed to be a weblog bearing photos of the missing, along with family members’ pleas for information on their whereabouts. These pages—littered with the smiles of the departed-served as reminders of how close a cataclysmic event on the other side of the Earth can seem in an age of global travel and satellite communication. The waves wrought by last week’s earthquake might have stopped on Asian shores, but their impact has registered around the world.*
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