Accessibility links

Breaking News

Asia: Aid Agencies Overwhelmed As Tsunami Death Toll Nears 70,000

The death toll from history's worst tsunami now stands at nearly 70,000. But aid officials warn it could double if disease takes hold. Rotting corpses, smashed sewers, and contaminated water are the most immediate dangers. Meanwhile, massive aid efforts continue with countries around the world pledging millions of dollars, but the scale of the devastation is proving to be overwhelming. Survivors in remote areas of Indonesia, the hardest hit country, are near starvation. And still missing are hundreds of foreign tourists -- particularly Swedes -- apparently washed out to sea from Thai resorts.

Prague, 29 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Indian Ocean is now returning its dead, washing bodies ashore along the coastlines devastated by the 26 December tsunami.

Like a clock, the death toll ticks higher by the hour as rescuers scour remote coastlines across the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka's UN ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke said yesterday at United Nations headquarters in New York that millions of people are likely to be homeless.

"The displaced persons will very well amount to a million or over a million persons. The fisheries industry as well as the tourist industry on which we base our economy are practically devastated as a result of the tidal wave," Goonetilleke said.

Today, David Nabarro, the head of the World Health Organization in Indonesia, said the overall death toll could double if disease takes hold. In many areas, rotting bodies, smashed sewers, and contaminated water present immediate dangers to health.
"There is no food here whatsoever. We need rice. We need petrol. We need medicine. I haven't eaten in two days."

The tsunami was triggered on 26 December by a massive undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island Sumatra. The waves, up to 10 meters high, spread in an arc of death from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and all the way to Africa.

So far, the highest death tolls are in Indonesia (32,500), Sri Lanka (22,500), and India (12,400). But beneath the numbers lay tales of individual horror.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service spoke yesterday in Astana with Lada Li, a tourist returning from the resorts of southern Thailand.

"It was really horrible, so horrible that the water rose above the second floor, breaking windows, and sweeping people away," Li said.

The tsunami hit towns and beach resorts, sucking locals and tourists out the sea, toppling buildings and sweeping cars from roads.

German tourist Deklef Richler spoke to Reuters today from a hospital bed in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

"I wanted to climb up the roof, but it was impossible. The waves were so strong they brought me at least 500 or 600 meters through the jungle that is behind the beach," Richler said.

Hundreds of tourists, mostly in Thailand, are still missing and presumed dead. They include 1,500 holidaymakers from Sweden alone.

As relief workers and emergency aid pour in, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the cost of the devastation is expected to be in the billions of dollars.

Countries around the world have pledged millions of dollars in aid, with the European Union, the United States, and Japan the biggest donors so far.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier spoke today to journalists on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand.

"There are people here whose families have been broken, destroyed. And we have to help these people psychologically and I have come here with psychiatrists, psychologists to help at the human and personal level," Barnier said.

But the worst hit area may be Indonesia's outlying Aceh Province on the northern tip of Sumatra near the earthquake's epicenter.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke today of "frightening reports" from Aceh. Rescue crews reached the town of Meulaboh on Aceh's west coast today, only to find thousands of dead bodies and rubble.

Survivors are near starvation. Vaiti Usman, a woman in her mid-30s, told Reuters: "There is no food here whatsoever. We need rice. We need petrol. We need medicine. I haven't eaten in two days."