After Tsunami, Relief Begins

NEW DELHI — As people gathered on the beaches of southern India to scatter flower petals on the sea, and began to bury the dead, nations and aid organizations worldwide stepped forward with relief assistance for the eight Indian Ocean countries struck by tsunamis Sunday.

In Kuwait, where thousands of Sri Lankans work as maids and janitors, the government pledged $1 million in humanitarian aid. "Companies are coming forward on their own, it's unbelievable," says Ahmed Izzeth Izzedeen, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Kuwait. Other nations are offering clothing and food, as well as their national airlines to carry the donations. Ships and helicopters of the Pakistani Navy are helping evacuate survivors in the Maldives.

Relief workers say that given the scale of the devastation over many remote coastlines, the help is going to be needed. (By Tuesday evening, the total death toll had reached 56,000.)

"It was over in less than 20 minutes, but ever since then I have been helping recover bodies — at least 200 just on this beach alone and many are still floating in the lagoon," says De Lima, who works for CARE International, one of the world's largest humanitarian organizations, in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.

While poor countries such as Sri Lanka and India have aid organizations with experience in dealing with floods in the region, many of those workers themselves are personally affected.

"My family and I were returning from church on Sunday [when the tsunami hit]," says Mr. Lima. "When I returned to my house and opened the door, four feet of water came pouring out along with furniture, clothes, telephones etc."

Although his home phone was washed away, De Lima has managed to restore the phone in his office and is back in business the morning after, along with 38 other CARE workers based in the area.

"There is no lack of aid workers in Sri Lanka, in places like Trincomalee, etc.," he says, "but this time around all the workers I know have been themselves affected by the disaster. Most have lost at least one aunt or uncle or other family member. It's nothing like what I have experienced in the past."

Oxfam official Gurinder Kaur in Delhi says that the initial efforts are aimed at preventing outbreaks of disease. "Although food and clothing are in severe demand, aid workers are concentrating first on digging out bodies buried in the sand to prepare them for identification and then burial. The rest comes later," he says.

Most aid groups like Oxfam and CARE International have a significant presence in Sri Lanka and have often dealt with floods and cyclones that hit coastal areas. Mr. Kaur worked on relief efforts after a cyclone in Bangladesh in 1991, when an estimated 140,000 people died. But he says that this disaster is different: "No one around India and Sri Lanka has ever witnessed or experienced a tsunami. While weather experts have had some experience in tidal waves and there was some warning, most people were still unable to get away. But this is a first for the Indian Ocean since the 1830s."

Biranchi Uppadhyaya, South Asian regional manager for Oxfam, based in New Delhi, says that the situation in India at the moment appears to be one of a "localized emergency that the Indian authorities and the Army are capable of dealing with, while the Sri Lanka situation is bad all along the coastline and made much worse by the fact that it's a major destination for beach goers getting away from northern winters."

Kaur agrees, noting that the tragedy was magnified in Sri Lanka because of all the built up areas along the beaches — the hotels and beach bungalows catering to vacationers.

ICRC, Care International, World Vision and other local NGOs have been assessing the extent of the tragedy for the last 24 hours, but are not expected to finish until later this week. Disrupted phone lines and broken mobile phone towers have made communications difficult. "Some of these areas are remote and many have been totally submerged, so its difficult for the aid workers to know what or who they are looking for in many instances,” says Kaur.

Lahiru Perera, director of programs at CARE International in Colombo says that the situation is less clear in the Tamil Tiger-controlled areas in the north. "We have heard that about 2,000 people in one Jaffna village have been killed by the tsunami, but we are unable to confirm the information."

The Sri Lankan government has put together a coordinating committee to deal with the disaster. Speaking from England, where she was vacationing, President Chandrika Kumaratunga told the BBC that Sri Lanka wasn't prepared for a disaster of "this magnitude."

As in Sri Lanka, the hardest hit areas of Indonesia are also in places where the government has been fighting separatist rebels. Monday, for the first time in 18 months, Jakarta lifted a ban on foreign journalists and international aid agencies traveling to the war-torn Aceh province, where an estimated 5,000 have died.

"I'm panicking and I'm praying," said Ani, an Acehnese woman in Indonesia's capital Jakarta who had not heard any news from her family in Banda Aceh, which was heavily damaged by the quake.

The relief effort may help Indonesia win over hearts and minds in Aceh, where government soldiers have often been blamed for human rights abuses going back to the 1970s.

An army spokesman in the North Aceh town of Lhokseumawe said that most military units are assisting in the relief effort, helping tens of thousands to evacuate. Baktiar Abdullah, a Swedish-based spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement, said Monday that it had declared a cease-fire to allow aid to enter the province.

In some parts of Somalia, waves traveled two miles inland, along riverbeds, Umar Haji Ali, a fisherman in Kabaal, told Associated Press. The UN Children's Fund says it is sending a team of aid workers to assess the situation in northeastern Somalia, says Siddharth Chatterjee, a senior program officer with the agency in Nairobi.

• Tom McCawley in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report and material from the wire services was also used.

How you can help:

The following are among the aid agencies accepting contributions for those affected by the earthquake and tsunamis in Asia. Contact the individual group for information on how to send donations.

American Jewish World Service
45 West 36th Street
New York, NY 10018-7904

American Red Cross
International Response Fund
PO Box 37243
Washington, DC 20013

151 Ellis Street NE
Atlanta, GA 30303

Catholic Relief Services
PO Box 17090
Baltimore, MD 21203-7090

Direct Relief International
27 South La Patera Lane
Santa Barbara, CA 93117

Doctors Without Borders
PO Box 2247
New York, NY 10116-2247

The First Church of Christ, Scientist
Tsunami Relief
175 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

International Orthodox Christian Charities PO Box 630225
Baltimore, MD 21263-0225

International Medical Corps
11500 West Olympic Blvd., Suite 506
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Oxfam America
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111-1206

Mercy Corps
PO Box 2669
Portland, OR 97208

Operation USA
8320 Melrose Avenue, Ste. 200
Los Angles, CA 90069

Source: Associated Press

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