Millions homeless as tsunami toll nears 119,000, new quakes scare survivors

12-30-2004, 14h37
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFP)

Up to five million people were displaced by tsunamis that killed nearly 119,000 people in Asia, officials said, as aftershocks rocked traumatised survivors.

"We estimate that up to five million people have been displaced and are at risk across the region," Harsaran Pandey, spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation in South Asia, told AFP.

The global health body said between one and three million of those affected were in Indonesia, with another one million in Sri Lanka. The rest were spread between India, the Maldives and other nations.

The estimate came as a government warning that high waves could strike again from aftershocks rattling Indonesia sent thousands fleeing in panic from the coastline of southern India.

"The waves are coming," people yelled as they fled on foot, buses and any transport they could find.

The latest quake, measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale, hit northwest of Indonesia's Sumatra island city of Medan shortly after 4:00 am (2100 GMT Wednesday), after two quakes measuring 5.1 and 5.2 the previous evening, but experts said they were not big enough to cause tidal waves.

Sunday's killer tsunamis were unleashed by a gigantic 9.0 magnitude tectonic shift 150 kilometres (93 miles) off Sumatra, rolling on across the Indian Ocean to wreak havoc in 11 countries.

Nearly 119,000 people are confirmed dead, thousands are missing, and the toll is expected to rise sharply with disease threatening the lives of survivors.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pushed Thursday for a UN-sponsored international conference to discuss relief operations for affected nations.

Yudhoyono said he had already received support for the proposal from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US President George W. Bush.

The president also urged separatist rebels in the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged province of Aceh on Sumatra to lay down their weapons and join efforts to rebuild the region.

"I call on those who are still raising arms, to come out... let us use this historic momentum to join and be united again," Yudhoyono told a press conference.

Meanwhile, the international effort to bring aid to Aceh cranked slowly into gear but the program was hampered by transport problems as the death toll continued to rise.

Around 80,000 people in Aceh have been confirmed killed by the tsunami.

"Much of Aceh, which was closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, has been leveled and the local population urgently needs shelter and basic living supplies," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said. "The numbers and the needs are absolutely staggering."

In another hard-hit country facing a separatist insurgency, Sri Lanka, the tragedy which has hit government and rebels alike seems also to be provoking signs of a change of attitude.

An AFP correspondent who made it through to areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was told by an official in charge of medical coordination that "contrary to routine the army will not check the vehicles going to the rebel zones."

And in Tamil regions controlled by the army, the "military is helping all communities, and that includes Tamils," said a medical student Kiruben Tharmalingam, 22.

President George W. Bush announced the United States, Australia, Japan and India would spearhead the international response to the catastrophe and urged other nations to join.

The United Nations chief emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, welcomed the move, saying it would complement UN efforts.

But long before the bureaucratic wheels of relief creaked into operation, ordinary people in the devastated areas pitched in to help survivors who have now lived for five days amidst unspeakable horrors.

Remarkable tales of heartwarming generosity emerged amid the chaos and grief. Throughout the hardest-hit countries of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India, people came forward to help, donating clothes and food while tending the wounded.

Others set about the more grisly task of disposing of the bloated corpses that litter beaches and streets and threaten public health.

"I heard that they needed some help, so I came," explained Sangitan Senaphan, a 20-year-old volunteer at a hospital in Phuket, Thailand.

"I just want to help people," said hotelier Khun Wan who was offering free food and accommodation to foreign tourists struggling to cope in the aftermath of the tragedy.

At least 710 foreigners are among the 2,394 confirmed to have died after tidal waves battered southwest Thailand, the interior ministry said Thursday, with 6,130 still missing, many of them foreigners.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra suggested Thailand's final death toll could approach 6,800, as European nations joined Thais in trying to trace thousands of missing people.

Sweden and Germany have each said that more than 1,000 of their nationals are unaccounted for, while 446 Norwegians and several hundred French are missing.

Across the region families opened their homes to bewildered survivors and strangers offered the shirts off their backs to foreigners in swimwear left with nothing but their lives.

Dutchwoman Irene Nicastro, who was forced to flee empty-handed as her hotel room in Galle in southern Sri Lanka filled with water, was touched by the generosity shown to her by locals.

"Despite their own losses, they took care of us," she said, and pledged to raise money to help Sri Lankans cope with their losses when she gets back to her wealthier lifestyle.

With governments and aid organisations grappling with overwhelming relief tasks, wealthy and ordinary citizens have dug deep into their pockets as the world collectively reels at the scale of the catastrophe.

Spurring the outpouring of generosity are the endless tales of suffering emerging from coastlines around South and Southeast Asia.

For some, it has all been too much.

At Banda Aceh's main Baiturrahman mosque, a 20th century Moorish structure filled with the stench of rotting flesh, a lone man in a dirty white t-shirt and jeans sat in a corner mumbling to himself and others.

"He has lost it," said an attendant, helping an old man with a festering wound on one of his legs whom he said had yet to utter a single word in two days.

Children have been among the hardest hit by the tragedy, swept off their feet by the power of the waves and drowned, or losing their parents and siblings. And for some, the killer tsunamis are coming again, over and over, in their nightmares.

Malaysian Rahibah Osman's 11-year-old son, Mohamad Fikri Rahim, who was caught by ferocious waves "as high as coconut trees and blackened with mud", has troubled dreams in Penang General Hospital after being saved by his father.

He cries in his sleep and shouts "No, no!", his mother, 49, told AFP.

"I don't know what he's talking about, but when I ask him, he starts to cry," she said.