Tsunami toll tops 175,000

The number of people killed in Asia’s tsunami disaster has soared past 175,000 after Sri Lanka raised its death toll, amid fears of possible attacks against aid workers in Indonesia. 

Aid agencies say the situation is gradually improving
Aid agencies say the situation is gradually improving

A senior international aid official said Indonesia’s Aceh province was rebounding so well from the disaster that emergency relief work could wind up fairly quickly.

“I think we are fortunate that things are not as bad as we feared,” said Patrick Webb, chief of nutrition at the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP).

“Malnutrition is not widespread. Diseases are not rampant yet,” he said in the Acehnese capital, Banda Aceh.

“They are fortunate that there has been this massive response, which will make recovering a lot faster than it ever has got a chance of in Darfur for example, or Afghanistan.”

More dead

Sri Lankan officials said another 7275 people were now known to have died in the 26 December catastrophe, taking the national total to 38,195. The jump was not due to the sudden discovery of a large number of bodies, but because of a backlog of figures from remote areas.

Paul Wolfowitz visited tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka

Paul Wolfowitz visited tsunami
survivors in Sri Lanka

In a lightning visit to a small village in Galle, in southern Sri Lanka, US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz clambered over rubble to reach a group of women waiting outside an elementary school.

“We are very sorry about what happened. The whole world wants to help you, my country especially,” said Wolfowitz, who is touring the countries worst hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami. 

Sri Lanka announced a major reconstruction drive to build 15 new towns on its southern and eastern coasts. The government will help people rebuild in safe areas, or simply construct new towns.

“We were not prepared at all to face a disaster like this,” said President Chandrika Kumaratunga. “The people of this country faced it effectively, they are in a position to rebuild.”

Security fears

Some Sri Lankans were already rebuilding, defying a government ban to put up houses and hotels close to the shore. 

“I am worried about my family but I am also worried about the future of my children. This is my business. How else will I protect and feed my children?” said Ranjith Premakumara, 28, rebuilding a guest house just 30m from the beach in the southern town of Paiyagala South.

Denmark warned of possible attacks on aid workers in Aceh 

Denmark warned of possible
attacks on aid workers in Aceh 

Political tensions in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka shadowed relief efforts.

Denmark’s foreign ministry warned of possible attacks on foreign aid workers in Aceh, where separatist rebels have been engaged in a long-running conflict with government troops.

Indonesia has sought to limit the activities of foreign troops and relief workers in the area, but has rolled back on earlier suggestions that all foreign military should leave the province by the end of March.

In Sri Lanka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are in a shaky ceasefire with the government and tensions are rising over how tsunami relief is being handled.

Wolfowitz urged people in both countries to use the tragedy to find new ways of working together. “Hopefully they will realise on all sides that the stakes that they are fighting for are relatively trivial,” he said in Sri Lanka. 


Indonesia, the hardest-hit country with more than 115,000 dead, promised to overhaul relief efforts amid fears that mismanagement and corruption might divert some of the billions of aid dollars pledged by donors around the world.

Information Minister Sofyan Djalil said the reorganisation would seek to coordinate responses by various agencies and would include a “credible” oversight scheme to monitor the huge sums earmarked for reconstruction in Indonesia, long ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

“Immediate needs of food and shelter are being met”

Mark Collins,
AusAID operations head in Aceh

Indonesia is expected to receive the bulk of more than $7 billion from governments, corporations and individuals pledged for tsunami aid.

On the ground in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island where almost all of the country’s deaths occurred and hundreds of thousands remain homeless, aid officials said they were making headway.

“Immediate needs of food and shelter are being met,” said Mark Collins, head of Aceh operations for relief group AusAID, adding that fears were waning of widespread outbreaks of diarrhoea and other intestinal diseases.

Identifying bodies

In Thailand, Prime Minister Goran Persson of Sweden – which lost hundreds of people – visited a Buddhist temple turned mortuary with his Norwegian and Finnish counterparts, Kjell Magne Bondevik and Matti Vanhanen.

The temple houses hundreds of corpses from the nearby Khao Lak resort which forensics experts are trying to identify, a crucial step for families left without a body to grieve over.

Many survivors are traumatised by the loss of loved ones  

Many survivors are traumatised 
by the loss of loved ones  

Thailand saw more than 5300 people killed in the tsunami, half of them foreign tourists, and tens of thousands of bodies around the region may never be recovered.

“I am impressed and I am also extremely humbled because they are doing a very difficult job here under difficult circumstances,” Persson said.

In an effort to help devastated villages, a Bangkok tour operator announced plans to run three-day, 2500-baht ($64) “tsunami tours”, allowing tourists both to bring money to the economy and attend Buddhist ceremonies for the dead.

In denial

For many across the region, however, it will take more than tourists and their money to heal the wounds.

In the Indian town of Seruthur, Lakshmi Kolandavelu refuses to believe her husband when he says their two-year-old son, torn from her arms by the waves and missing, is dead and probably buried in a mass grave with three of his four siblings.

“We never found their bodies,” she says, shaking her head.

“The sea goddess gave us five children and snatched back four,” says her husband.

In India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, fishermen were back casting their nets, although now working from once-dry coastal roadways that the tsunami has left flooded.

“I need the extra food. The sea has brought the fish closer to man. It is God’s will,” said Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

Source: Reuters

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