Hope springs amid the ruins

HAMBANTOTA (Sri Lanka): UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan saw the scars that the tsunami left in Sri Lanka yesterday, where lives are in ruins but where hard work and outside help have started to make a difference. 

Nearly two weeks after the monster waves hammered the coasts of Indian Ocean nations, hardest-hit Indonesia was still pulling thousands of bodies out of the rubble. Its toll rose to more than 104,000 – two-thirds of all those who died in the killer waves. 

A day after saying he was shocked by what he saw in Indonesia, Annan visited this popular tourist resort in south-eastern Sri Lanka, which has been largely ruined. 

“From the air I saw a beautiful country, but there has been a lot of damage,” he said after flying in by helicopter. 

Here alone, nearly 5,000 people died, most buried before they could be identified. 

Giving some much-needed good news, the United Nations said that by this weekend, relief workers would get at least some food and other emergency supplies to “every person in need” in Sri Lanka, a figure officials put at 750,000. 

Forty nations lost nationals in the catastrophe in addition to the 13 countries swamped by the killer waves. Some 7,500 foreign tourists are dead, missing or unaccounted for. 

Every piece of positive news around the stricken Indian Ocean region is dwarfed by one awful truth: after almost two weeks, whole swathes of Aceh, along the remote but populous west coast that faced the waves, are still out of contact. 

Indonesia's Health Ministry yesterday listed 77,000 people as missing and the number of homeless has risen to 655,000. 

“Where are the people?” Annan asked after a helicopter trip over Aceh's ravaged landscape on Friday. 

The United Nations warned the fate of tens of thousands was still unknown and that the death toll could soar if survivors succumbed to dysentery and cholera for lack of clean water. 

Separatists have been fighting the Indonesian army in Aceh for three decades and fresh clashes this week have sparked concern that renewed fighting would disrupt aid and give the military an opportunity to cement its control over the province. 

Prospects in Sri Lanka may be less bleak than in Aceh, but that is of no comfort to those with shattered lives. 

“My three best friends were washed away. My fishing companions, all dead,” said fisherman Manickam Mahendran, 27, amid the ruins of the fishing village Mullaittivu. 

“I cannot foresee what the future holds for me.” 

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began a tour of his country's worst-hit Andaman and Nicobar Islands yesterday but aid workers complained his visit had disrupted relief operations. 

“For the last three days, officials have done little else except make pie charts, graphs, files for the prime minister's visit,” said Vikram Tirkey, a doctor on the remote island chain. 

Singh said he would ensure that houses and schools are quickly rebuilt. 

“This is my solemn assurance that the government of India will spare no resources to come to the aid of all families affected by this tragedy,” he said. 

The government said India's toll from the Dec 26 tsunami had risen to 15,636, including 6,000 people feared to have died on the remote archipelago, which is home to endangered tribes. 

US Navy helicopters dropped rice yesterday to desperate survivors in Meulaboh, on Aceh's west coast, about 150km from the epicentre of the powerful undersea quake that unleashed the tsunami without warning on Boxing Day. – Reuters  

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