South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Annan calls devastation in Sumatra worst
he has ever seen

7 January 2005

Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations flew over the western coast of Sumatra today and described the devastation there as the worst he has ever seen, while Indonesia said 4,000 more bodies had been pulled from the rubble.

Mr. Annan and the World Bank president, James D. Wolfensohn, landed in the region and then drove to the shattered coastal town of Meulaboh.

"I have never seen such utter destruction mile after mile," a shaken Mr. Annan told reporters afterward. "You wonder where are the people? What has happened to them?"

In Sri Lanka, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made his third stop in countries hit by the devastation, but said he doubted the United States would pledge more financial aid immediately.

On Thursday Mr. Annan gently prodded world leaders who gathered here for a one-day conference on coordinating the tsunami relief effort to follow through on their aid pledges, which now total more than $3 billion.

Mr. Annan called for immediate cash donations of $977 million to cope with emergency needs for water, food, shelter and medicine during the next six months and to keep a constant stream of aid flowing in what he called "a race against time" to avoid a new spike in the death toll.

[Based on new figures released Friday by Indonesia of 113,306 dead there, The Associated Press reported the overall total had climbed to about 160,000.]

The request for cash reflected concern about a common pattern in major disasters, in which money that is pledged when the issue dominates the news is not delivered in full later. That has been the case in the response to the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran.

"We have often had gaps in the past," Mr. Annan said when asked about the disparity between pledges and actual donations, "and I hope it is not going to happen in this case." He called on the news media to "keep up the pressure."

The leaders agreed to move quickly to create a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean and to consider a moratorium on debts payments for the hardest hit countries.

In a sign of the political complications of providing aid in a volatile region, Secretary Powell said after the meeting that the United States would relax restrictions on military aid to Indonesia in order to provide spare parts for American-supplied C-130 transport aircraft, which are playing a critical role in delivering emergency supplies. The restrictions were imposed by Congress in 1999 because of human rights concerns about Indonesia's suppression of East Timor's independence movement.

Human rights groups complained in June 2003 about Indonesia's use of C-130's and other American military equipment in attacks on separatists in the province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra, the region most devastated in the disaster.

Only seven of Indonesia's 24 C-130's are in working order, Mr. Powell said, and the need for aid in Aceh, where roughly two-thirds of the tsunami's victims died, has overcome concerns that the equipment could be misused. "The humanitarian need trumps the reservations we have," Mr. Powell said.

The meeting was also attended by Prime Ministers John Howard of Australia, Junichiro Koizumi of Japan and Wen Jiabao of China.

Mr. Annan called the tsunami "an unprecedented global catastrophe," the largest natural disaster the United Nations has faced in its 60-year history. He cautioned that parts of the devastated coastline of Aceh had yet to be surveyed and that the estimated total people killed in the 12 nations hit may be low.

An American official said Navy helicopters would begin the most detailed survey so far of remote areas of Sumatra's west coast on Friday in an attempt to get a more complete picture of the destruction.

Health officials warn that the need to clean up and rebuild areas with poor sanitation and a lack of medical care was urgent. The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Lee Jong Wook, said another 150,000 people could die if an outbreak of disease occurs. He estimated that five million people in the dozen countries affected had lost housing, water or food supplies.

Mr. Powell said the "core group" of donor nations organized last week by the United States would be dissolved, leaving the United Nations to take the leading role in the relief effort. Some commentators had viewed the initial American move as an attempt to bypass the United Nations, though both Mr. Powell and Mr. Annan said that was not the case.

"The core group helped to catalyze the international response," Mr. Powell said at the meeting, organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "But now having served its purpose, the core group will fold itself into the broader coordination efforts of the United Nations."

Mr. Powell said Congress had indicated support for President Bush's pledge of $350 million in relief funds and expressed "a willingness to do more as we understand the full dimensions of the catastrophe."

After its initial aid offers of $15 million and then $35 million were criticized as low, the Bush administration moved aggressively to create a formidable response, including scores of military helicopters to deliver aid and a private fund-raising effort led by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush.

At the same time, the administration approved new duties on Thursday of as much as 115 percent on shrimp imported from six countries, including India and Thailand, even though those duties will hurt fishing communities devastated in the tsunami in both countries.

Worried that it might appear callous to impose the new duties now, the International Trade Commission agreed to open an inquiry centering on the "changed circumstances" in India and Thailand that could eventually revoke the duties for them. Even before the final tariffs were imposed, Thailand had said it would file a suit against the United States at the World Trade Organization.

Now that the relief has grown to become the overwhelming concern of international charities and governments, questions arose about whether other crises were being ignored. Answering a reporter, Mr. Annan acknowledged that the refugee crisis in Darfur in western Sudan was getting less attention.

"That is a dilemma we live with," he said. "This crisis has generated an incredible amount of resources, a spontaneous and generous response, while some other crises do not get the kind of response that we need."

The very scale of the money pledged for tsunami relief has also raised questions about how it will be managed and spent. "We don't need a donors' conference; we need a logistics conference," a European ambassador said.

A senior American official added: "Everyone agrees with that. We have a tsunami of donors."

He said the United States was insisting on "accountability," which is the diplomatic way of acknowledging the potential for corruption. Corruption has been endemic here, starting with senior officials and filtering down to civil servants who deal with the public.

Donor countries know that corruption will mean that not all of their donations will reach the people in need, diplomats from several countries said. The American official said the hope was that 95 cents of each donated dollar gets to the victims. An Asian diplomat with long experience in Indonesia said he would estimate closer to 90 cents on the dollar.

Beyond corruption, another fear is that charities affiliated with Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah or other radical Islamic organizations will use the opportunity to influence events in Aceh. "This is something the government of Indonesia has to watch very carefully," the American official said.

Scott Shane and Raymond Bonner

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