A desperate search for aid as tsunami fatalities double


BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Exhausted survivors of South Asia's giant earthquake and tsunamis combed the rubble for food and belongings yesterday as officials stepped up efforts to identify and bury the dead, whose numbers now exceed 60,000.

Small shipments of medicine, food, clothing and bedding, some sent by governments and others organized by individuals, reached a few affected areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, the countries most seriously affected. Indonesia, with more than 32,000 dead, was the hardest-hit, followed by Sri Lanka with nearly 22,000.

In the Indonesian provincial capital of Banda Aceh, the nearest major city to the epicenter of Sunday's earthquake, decaying and bloated bodies were strewn throughout the streets early today. More than 75 blackened corpses cast an overpowering stench over Panglima Polem Street, and authorities appeared unprepared to organize even the most basic services for disaster victims.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who visited Banda Aceh yesterday, called the tsunamis a "national catastrophe" and sought to assure residents that the government was doing what it could to help them. "We will bury all the dead within two days," he promised.

Thousands who survived found shelter in makeshift tents along busy streets and in city parks and returned yesterday to the muddy remnants of their homes to salvage what they could. Gasoline was in such short supply that ambulances were being issued barely a gallon a day.

Authorities have been unable to send assistance to the coastal region south of Banda Aceh, where up to 40,000 people might have died. Officials said that at least 75 percent of the buildings in Meulaboh, on Sumatra's western shore, were destroyed by the tremor and tsunami. Roads to the area, which has a population of about 100,000, were impassable.

Desperate measures

With aid only starting to arrive, desperate people in Meulaboh and other towns in Aceh were stealing whatever food they could find.

In the neighborhoods around Panglima Polem Street, once a thriving shopping and residential area, whole blocks were little more than rubble. Boats were perched at odd angles in streets or atop piles of broken concrete and timber where houses once stood.

Television sets, mattresses, clothes, plastic bins, motorbikes, upended cars and dead animals were among the stinking debris. Survivors covered their faces with scarves or towels as they walked by.

A few residents told of miraculous escapes, but even those were tinged with sadness.

Sudirman, a 55-year-old fisherman, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, was in his apartment when the magnitude-9 quake hit. When a second tremor struck moments later, he and his family hurried to the street.

They heard people shout that water was coming and looked up to see a wave at least 10 feet tall rushing toward them. He and his family began running but were swept up by the wave.

The swirling water carried Sudirman down the street, he said, periodically bringing him to the surface and allowing him to take a gulp of air. He was bashed in the head and legs by pieces of wood. After 100 yards, he was pushed into a side street and escaped the wave.

"I almost gave up. I almost died," he said. "I was lucky."

His son, Suwarno, was carried 200 yards by the wave and also escaped. But five family members were lost, including Suwarno's wife and three of their children, ages 2, 5 and 11.

During the family's salvage effort, Suwarno, 38, emerged from their apartment with a photo of his wife and children and broke into tears as he showed it to visitors. Then he walked two blocks to where his wife's body lay. Earlier, family members had wrapped the body in a cloth. Suwarno pinned a piece of paper to it so she could be identified when the body was picked up.

Health officials fear that cholera and other diseases could break out if the bodies are left unburied and water sources are contaminated. But some survivors said the local authorities were too preoccupied with their own tragedies to do their job.

"The local government got hit by the disaster, and everyone is taking care of their own family," said Muslim, 45, who lost 10 relatives - his mother, a brother, two sisters and six nephews.

Yudhoyono said hundreds of police and soldiers were among the dead, including some who died trying to save others. Officials said the loss of so many troops and police has slowed the emergency response.

It was unclear how the disaster and aid efforts would affect Aceh residents' feelings about the Indonesian government, which for 28 years has been trying to put down a rebellion by separatists who contend that Indonesia never legally annexed the province. Aceh has been under strict military control for 18 months, and few foreigners have been allowed into the province.

Some question whether aid has been delayed by the military's strong grip on the province and its reluctance to open the region to outsiders. But Aceh rebels declared a cease-fire in an effort to speed delivery of assistance to the area, and the government has allowed some international officials in.

Appeal for aid

The devastation in other nations was equally horrendous. The death toll in Sri Lanka neared 22,000 early today, but many remote areas have not been fully assessed.

Among the dead were an estimated 800 people who were killed when the tsunami washed over a train near the town of Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka's southwestern coast. The train, dubbed Queen of the Sea, was swept off the track by the force of the water.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga appealed for international aid, as did the rebel Tamil Tigers, who occupy the northern part of the country and have been fighting for an independent homeland for their ethnic group for more than two decades.

An estimated 1 million of Sri Lanka's 20 million people have been left homeless. Aid workers said there are 335 refugee camps in Sri Lanka ranging in size from 500 to 7,000 people, most housed in churches, Buddhist temples and community centers. A heavy rain yesterday added misery for survivors sleeping out in the open.

As in other countries, a pressing issue was how to dispose of the thousands of bodies. Also, aid workers said they expect to find many corpses entombed in vehicles now buried in sand.

"At one point, they have to surface, and it won't be a pretty sight," said Sithmini Perera, Colombo-based communications director with World Vision, a civic group. "There's also a cry for more petroleum to burn the bodies."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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