Thursday, December 30, 2004

The suffering is unimaginable. And the articles about it fill the news. I have already given a donation to Doctors Without Borders and written a letter to Pres. Bush, but the awareness of how enormously lucky I am to be here and not there, and the feeling of helplessness at how little I can do to make it better keeps me reading, reading, reading, trying to learn as much as I can, trying to absorb it all, trying in the only way I can right now to be a witness and to not let it leave my mind, because the ones who are in the midst of it certainly cannot let it leave their minds.

Indonesia's official news service, The Standard, reports that entire coastlines are empty of life.

Swathes of coast were stripped of life in the isolated west of Indonesia's Aceh with reports of starvation and looting doing little to alleviate fears for areas from where there was only silence.

Witness accounts from aircraft flying over a 240-kilometre stretch of shoreline say absolutely nothing remains of villages and towns in an area left underwater by Sunday's titanic earthquake and waves.

In Indonesia, where officials have estimated the number of dead could reach 80,000, the tsunamis have increased the suffering already endemic in places like Aceh province, "the scene of a guerrilla rebellion by the separatist Free Aceh Movement, which wants control of the area's considerable oil resources." The disaster prompted the Indonesian government to relax restrictions they have long had in place on entry by journalists and aid groups, because of the political instability.

But the difficulty in getting food and other relief supplies in may exacerbate the resentment and anger many Indonesians in Aceh province feel toward their government.

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.

Survivors face thirst, hunger, and disease. With aid still very scarce in most places as a result of logistical, communication, coordination, distribution, and supply problems, millions of people who survived the tsunamis face death from starvation and illness.

The tiny village of Meulaboh, in Indonesia's Aceh province, was one of the first places the enormous waves hit. The town's chief detective said that there is very little food left.

``If within three to four days relief does not arrive, there will be a starvation disaster that will cause mass deaths,'' he said in the e-mail, released by officials in Jakarta. ...

``The economic conditions are totally paralysed, fuel is non-existent, looting is everywhere, the number of victims is rising but they cannot be evacuated,'' the e-mail went on.

A reporter with the state Antara news agency who also flew over the area said most of the coastline between Meulaboh and Banda Aceh was still underwater with few survivors among demolished buildings.

``There are no longer any signs of life along 240 kilometres. All that is left from houses and offices are only foundations,'' he said.

The air force encountered difficulties in dropping aid to victims because most of the area is under water or thick mud, relief task force leader Lieutenant Colonel Deri Pemba said.

Physical suffering is not the only problem. Emotional and psychological scars, although less visible, can be even more devastating in the long run.

The physical signs of Sunday's deadly tsunami are everywhere here. Less visible, but potentially longer lasting, are the mental wounds. And mental health experts say that unique characteristics of the catastrophe are compounding the psychological recovery process.

The fact that it struck out of the blue on a beautiful morning during a holiday period, they say, sends an underlying message that even core beliefs — that sea and land are distinct, that entire communities don't just disappear in seconds — can't be taken for granted.

"We're seeing a lot of very stressed people in hospitals, given all they've suffered, including many in delirium," said Hemamali Perera, senior lecturer in psychological medicine with the Medical Faculty of Colombo. "We're seeing deep grief, distress, people unable to talk, although it's way too early to see the full impact."

Aid workers, civic groups and mental health experts say these costs will be borne over years, even decades.

Amid the carnage and endless grief, there are individual stories of miraculous survival. Somehow, seeing that father's face convulsed in sobs at having his son back, and knowing his joy and relief are mixed with grief for his wife, who is still missing, tore me up more than anything I've seen or read about this tragedy up to now.

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