A New Year of Hope for Tsunami Victims?

The new year began for millions of tsunami survivors with grieving and trauma, but a few of the luckier ones saw a ray of hope as the outside world finally came to their rescue.

A legion of planes and ships brought aid to stricken areas around the Indian Ocean, but urgently needed supplies piled up at airports and warehouses, blocked by the destruction of roads, trucks, healthcare, phones and all the trappings of the modern world.

Japan pledged half a billion dollars in grant aid, the national news agency said, eclipsing Washington’s $350 million as the money poured in from a sympathetic world.

“We mourn, we cry, and our hearts weep, witnessing thousands of those killed left rigid in the streets,” Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in a subdued New Year address.

Revelers around the world paused at midnight to mourn victims of one of the worst disasters in living memory, when waves obliterated beach towns, sucking people out to sea or dumping them inland in a torrent of mud and debris.

On Phuket island, Thais and tourists held candles and white roses at midnight, tearfully embracing as they grieved.

For authorities there was little time to think of the dead.

They raced to help stricken areas with maybe 1 million homeless across several countries and 5 million in need of food, water, clothing and medical aid to prevent disease.

Many efforts targeted Banda Aceh, a city on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island close to Sunday’s undersea quake that sent death around the Indian Ocean.

It was the deadliest place of all, with two thirds of the tsunami’s known 127,000 victims living in or near it.

“It’s the corpses. I’m afraid of the corpses, especially at night,” said Ramli Ali, a former hospital worker trying to reach the city on foot from the flattened west coast.

“At night I try to sleep in the hills among the trees, but I can’t, I always think of the corpses.” He lived on coconuts but met barely a soul on his way along the coast, bodies floating in the shallow sea.

Scenes awaiting him in Banda Aceh may be worse still.

Bulldozers cleared a path through the city devastation and bodies could be seen sticking out of piles of debris nearly 12 feet high. Decaying corpses clogged a canal.

Quake aftershocks have become a daily event, sending many people scurrying into the open air. Fear of disease has seen people fleeing the city as others walk in.

But there was hope. Survivors watched a hive of activity at the airport as U.S. helicopters, Singaporean Super Puma choppers and Australian and Indonesian Hercules transports flew in.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an unprecedented operation to help. His emergency relief coordinator said the toll was approaching 150,000, with perhaps a third of them children.

“It is hard to imagine the fear, confusion and desperation of children who have seen enormous waves wash away their worlds,” said another aid official, UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy.

“Children have lost all semblance of the life they knew, from parents, siblings and friends to homes, schools and neighborhoods. They are in desperate need of care.”

Others worried for the next generation — unborn babies — with at least 150,000 pregnant women in tsunami-hit areas.

More than 28,700 people died in badly hit Sri Lanka, and nearly 13,000 in India, as confirmed tolls crept up from the magnitude-9 quake centered 95 miles off Banda Aceh.

Secretive, military-run Myanmar raised its death toll to 53 but experts wondered if it was giving the true picture.

Trying to understand individual tragedies bewildered many.

“The scale of human tragedy in South Asia is beyond our ability to characterize,” said Thomas Tighe, head of U.S. aid group Direct Relief International.

“The numerical death toll represents individual people, each someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father, or friend.”


In Phuket, the Thai island where 2,000 foreign tourists were among the dead, celebrations stopped for the new year and party-goers lit incense sticks. The mournful Elton John song “Candle in the Wind” echoed through the resort.

On the debris-strewn beach, two lonely figures with lighted candles crouched near the water’s edge.

Australia led the world in a global minute of silence, many cities canceled festivities and trees on Paris’s grand Champs Elysees, focal point of celebrations, were shrouded in black.

Sweden and Germany — who together lost hundreds of people — flew flags at half-mast to start 2005 as a mark of respect.

But life goes on. In Phuket, discos roared back to life and dancing girls, wiping away tears, returned to the table tops.

Relatives and friends flying to Asia in the hope of finding loved ones scoured gruesome mosaics of photographs of distorted faces pinned on bulletin boards.

“Please tell your friends not to come,” a tourist policeman told them over a loudspeaker at Phuket town hall rescue center.

“The bodies are no longer identifiable.”

Thailand drafted in elephants to help with heavy lifting, and prisoners to join the stomach-churning task of retrieving thousands of bodies strewn along west-coast beaches — offering them two days off their sentence for each day worked.

Forensic teams, in surgical gowns, face masks, goggles and boots, said they had a mountain to climb in identifying rotting bodies in the most daunting operation of their careers.

“It still doesn’t stop, we don’t know where the end is,” said Dutch police officer Pieter Wiersinsa.

Hundreds of thousands sheltered in makeshift tent camps around the Indian Ocean, where 13 countries were affected.

Secretary of State Colin Powell will tour devastated areas next week.

Indians asked if government incompetence stopped people being warned in time.

“At every stage, there was a shrinking window of opportunity to warn people. But nothing happened,” said New Delhi analyst Barun Mitra. “A country that hopes to run the call centers of the world could not call its own people.”

Amid all the heartache were tales of miraculous survival.

“My uncles, aunts, all the children, went past me. I was hanging from one branch, like a bat, and the tree was rocking,” said Brendina, 28, a tribal woman from India’s devastated Car Nicobar island who spent three days up a tree, living off leaves.