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Waves of destruction

The Red Cross and Red Crescent is at the forefront of response to the 26 December tsunami. National Societies in affected countries are spearheading the efforts with the support of the International Federation, the ICRC and numerous sister societies. As the emergency phase comes to a close, the Movement is concentrating on plans to reconstruct and rehabilitate a devastated region.

Marina beach, Chennai (Madras), India. The tidal waves struck the Indian coast two and a half hours after the earthquake in Indonesia. © STR / AFP

THE Puntland coast, Somalia.

Eleven-year-old Abdirisak was out fishing with his brother in their dugout, just off the village of Hafun, when the sea was suddenly sucked back from the shore, leaving fish stranded helplessly on the exposed sand.

The boys were not to know it, but it was the giant undertow that heralded the approach of the tsunami.

“My brother jumped out of the boat to grab a lobster,” Abdirisak remembers. “But just as he was walking away, I saw the waves, big as mountains, coming towards us fast. My brother was swept away.”

The terror of that moment is difficult to imagine. Abdirisak stayed on the boat and prayed. Then he realized he was actually floating over his village; he looked behind and caught sight of his brother’s limp body in the roaring surf. Eventually the dugout crashed onto a roof and stuck there.

The Somali coast is more than 7,000 kilometres from the earthquake’s underwater epicentre. Although the tsunami had lost much of its force after crossing the entire width of the Indian Ocean in seven hours, a wall of water the height of an average room still crashed through Hafun, smashing everything in its path.

In the first few days after the tsunami, the outside world wondered with a growing sense of foreboding what it must have been like in the remote Indonesian province of Aceh, a mere 100 kilometres from the epicentre, and hit by waves about three times the size of the one that made it all the way to the Horn of Africa.

When TV pictures, satellite photos and eyewitness accounts began to emerge, it quickly became clear: the destruction was total.

It is nearly 2,000 kilometres from Jakarta, but Irman Rachman managed to get to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital at the far tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, on 27th December, the day after the tsunami struck.

The disaster relief director of the Palang Merah Indonesia (Indonesian Red Cross — PMI) found that 40 still-dazed volunteers, themselves survivors of the wave, had managed to organize evacuations and rudimentary care for the wounded. Their headquarters had been washed away and they had hardly any equipment beyond their Red Cross vests, which served at least to bolster the vital team spirit that helped them function amidst devastation and death.

By the end of the second week, there were ten times that number of volunteers working in the area, supplemented by teams rotated in from all over the sprawling Indonesian archipelago.

Most were from specialized satganas (volunteer disaster response teams), comprising up to 50 young people, one for each PMI branch. The first team also arrived in Aceh on the 27th.

Satganas from the affected areas continue working as they have from the beginning. When their director Mr. Rachman asked one young satgana if she was ready to get away for a while, she told him: “How can I leave here. This is my home.”

“But,” says Rachman, visibly moved and fiercely proud of his satganas, “I thought to myself, what home?”

“I looked around and there was nothing.”

“Everything gone.”

Few volunteers had ever set foot in Banda Aceh, already the site of conflict and displacement before nature brought down her fist. Only a very few had ever even seen a dead body; but in one day, a single team of young PMI volunteers recovered more than a hundred.

“It is beyond anything you can imagine,” said Aris Budiman, a 20-year-old psychology student. His seven teammates are studying engineering, accounting, statistics, management and law. Typical ambitious youngsters, yet all say their main reason for being in Banda Aceh — for a three-week stretch — is simple devotion to Red Cross work.

“The first day was very difficult,” Budiman adds. “That night I dreamt I was still collecting bodies.”

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, before help could arrive from the rest of the country and abroad, these young Red Cross volunteers were virtually alone in providing relief. Like previous disasters in remote regions, the waves set the harshest test any young Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteer can face: to be effective after a calamity they may only have narrowly survived themselves and which has laid waste to their own communities.

In the first two weeks, the satganas evacuated more than 1,000 survivors, organized relief camp services to 13,000 internally displaced people, and recovered 20,000 bodies. They made field assessments, identified sources of safe drinking water, and comforted the bereaved, injured and sick. Their average age: twenty-one.

The PMI volunteers made a makeshift headquarters at a car showroom, which also housed a first-aid clinic, a tracing office, a relief goods warehouse, and a tented encampment where they took what little sleep they allowed themselves.

Over a month after the tsunami, volunteers from the Indonesian Red Cross continued to retrieve bodies in Banda Aceh. © AVENTURIER PATRICK / GAMMA


In some coastal villages of Sumatra three-quarters of the population are thought to have died. Nationwide in Indonesia, more than 220,000 people were killed or are still missing. The exact number of victims will probably never be known.

Some months on from the tsunami, what is left of Banda Aceh has returned to normality of a kind. Stores have reopened, farmers sell produce in the relocated market, and the traffic seems as snarled as ever. But half the city’s houses have been destroyed; nearly half of its people are missing or confirmed dead. It will be a very long time before it is “normal” again.

The Indonesian Red Cross was in the vanguard of the tsunami response in northern Sumatra and will play a key role in the reconstruction effort. The status of Aceh as a conflict zone, by far the worst affected by the tsunami, brought all sections of the Movement together: ICRC, International Federation, PMI and National Societies.

Across the tsunami zone, the International Federation coordinated the Movement’s response in Thailand, the Maldives, southern and western Sri Lanka, Indonesia except Aceh, and eastern Africa. The ICRC took responsibility for northern and eastern Sri Lanka and Aceh, areas where it was already operational.

In all, more than 30 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, mobilized over 300 international staff to delivered food, water, health services, psychological support, shelter materials and household articles to survivors. The International Federation sent 18 Emergency Response Units and nearly 240 relief flights into Asia, in coordination with the ICRC and the UN. The ICRC established a logistics base in Singapour from where it ran its air and sea relief operations.

As for the Movement’s plans for the future, Thierry Meyrat, ICRC head of delegation in Sri Lanka, observed that there are two challenges ahead. “The two primary challenges for the Movement are coordination amongst ourselves, as well as with other humanitarian and development agencies and local authorities. And, secondly, to address long-term needs as the funds raised allow us to develop programmes that will help people cope for many years to come.”

Tuuyahandi Ramalavathi, who came from the devastated Sri Lankan coastal village of Seenigama, calls her sister in Kuwait on a Red Cross satellite telephone as part of the ICRC and Sri Lanka Red Cross programme.

Children now orphaned

From the quake’s epicentre off the Sumatran coast, where the Indian and Burmese tectonic plates collide, the tsunami would have travelled almost due west to reach the coast of Sri Lanka in two hours.

Part “paradise island” and, like Indonesia, part conflict zone, Sri Lanka was the second worst affected country. Over 31,000 people are known to have died there and more than half a million were displaced. Along the devastated coastline, 80 per cent of fishing boats were destroyed — most beyond repair.

The actual moment of catastrophe in Sri Lanka and Thailand was captured on numerous tourist video cameras, as were people’s disbelieving comments as they filmed. For holidaymakers relaxing on beaches, it would have taken a colossal leap of imagination to guess what was about to happen. Many simply watched the band of surf on the horizon grow slowly bigger and bigger until, too late to avoid, the deadly threat became obvious.

Newspapers later published chilling photos by people who died soon after they took them.

The UN children’s agency said that many children were killed either because they could not outrun the waves or were more vulnerable to the deadly torrent of water-borne debris after the tsunami made landfall.

Other children survived, but only as orphans, because their parents had a reason to be on the coast that terrible day and left them behind inland. Like Nimanthi, a seven-year-old Sri Lankan girl, among hundreds who now attends one of the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRCS) counselling centres set up with the help of the Danish, American and Turkish Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Nimanthi’s mother and father were at a Sunday fair in Hambantota, on the south-east coast, when the tsunami hit. The little girl now stays with her grandmother and still hopes her parents will return one day.

About 1.5 million children were affected by the tsunami across Asia and east Africa; one third of recorded deaths were children. In Banda Aceh alone, an estimated 1,700 primary school teachers died and thirty-five per cent of all school-aged children were killed.

“The needs of children present special challenges,” said Dr Margriet Blaauw, director of the International Federation Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support in Denmark, who visited the tsunami countries in January. “Many are unable to talk about what happened. Teachers will have to be patient.”

Sri Lanka’s southern coastal belt is one of the most popular destinations in the world for Europeans escaping winter, with a high season from October to April when the monsoon moves north-east and the sea is calm. The Swedish government opened a parliamentary debate on foreign affairs in early February with this comment: “Tsunami — a word none of us will ever forget... we probably lost more children on 26 December morning than on any other day in the history of Sweden.”

When Bandula Jayasekera of the Red Cross arrived in Galle, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, he found a joint SLRCS and ICRC tracing team already at work searching for missing people. “I arrived at night and the city was a ghost town, shrouded in darkness,” Jayasekera reported. “There is the stench of decomposing bodies still buried under the rubble. Boats and trawlers washed almost up to the main road stand as silent sentinels, eerily out of place.”

“This is not the vibrant city I knew.”

Vpali Sirimanne, a diving instructor, was one of the many thousands of Sri Lankans who used to make their living from the sea. Noting remains of his boats or his scuba gear. The only thing anywhere near him in working order after the tsunami was a Red Cross truck delivering water, its noisy pump breaking the stillness as the shocked villagers lined up with buckets and cans.

Up to 40,000 families in Sri Lanka received immediate Red Cross assistance. © TILL MAYER / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION


The humanitarian spirit

But Sirimanne is also chairman of the SLRCS Bentota branch: he believes the tsunami brought out the humanitarian spirit in Sri Lankans and points with some pride to the number of new volunteers who have joined since. Up and down the coast, young Red Cross volunteers pushed rickety wheelbarrows from village to village, providing first aid and relief goods and helping desalinate wells.

In Thailand, which boasts some of the most luxurious beach resorts in the world, the tsunami failed to differentiate between expensive hotel and poor fishing community.

“How can I go on fishing after this?” wondered Oh Navarak, describing how he had lost his faith in the sea, from whose bounty he lived. Everywhere, it seems, the tsunami approached under a blue sky across a glassy sea, possibly delaying people’s realization of what it was. The morning of 26th December was fine and calm, Oh Navarak recalled, but his boat was caught by the breaking wave, tossing him and his two sons, aged 19 and 22, into the torrent.

“Then came a second and a third wave, which threw me ashore. All I can remember is holding onto a tree, just hoping to live.”

Oh Navarak told his story in the yard of the Ban Park Weep primary school, which the Thai Red Cross Centre turned into a centre for people made homeless by the disaster. It responded quickly, mobilizing volunteers in the affected areas within hours of the disaster to distribute food rations, candles and medicines.

More than 5,300 people are known to have died in Thailand, including 1,700 foreigners from 36 countries. Many tourists stayed behind to help with the relief effort, saying they wanted to repay their Thai hosts for the way many had put the needs of foreign visitors first.

The waves also wiped out the livelihoods of thousands of Indians in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and in the Nicobar Islands. Indian Red Cross medical teams were active in the worst-affected districts.

“Our local branch at Nagapattinam swung into action within a few hours of the disaster,” said Bargavi Davendra, from the Red Cross in Tamil Nadu, where ninety per cent of the 8,800 deaths on the Indian mainland occurred. “As the news spread, volunteers came pouring in to help meet the immediate need for food and clean water.” Vital to the Indian Red Cross’s ability to respond quickly were pre-positioned disaster preparedness stocks of relief items.

In the Maldives, the shallowness of the waters surrounding the country’s 200 inhabited islands limited the waves’ destructive power. However, twenty islands were described as “completely destroyed” and nearly 80 lost their supply of drinking water. About one fifth of the country’s population went short of food, but miraculously fewer than a hundred Maldivians died.

One of the worst disasters ever

The Indian Ocean tsunami has set back development efforts in the worst affected countries. In some coastal areas, the waves surged inland for several kilometres. The death toll rose relentlessly in the month following the disaster, with just over 280,000 people dead or missing (at mid-March) and more than 1 million displaced.

“This tsunami is one of the worst natural disasters ever,” according to Alan Bradbury, the International Federation’s relief coordinator, “not only because of the terrible loss of human life, but also because of the unprecedented geographical scope and number of people affected.

”The tsunami arguably generated more media coverage than any other natural disaster in modern history — dominating headlines and bulletins around the world for at least three weeks. Twenty-four-hour news channels were quickly anchoring their programmes live from the disaster zone.

But getting aid quickly to those in need proved a huge logistical challenge for humanitarian agencies. It took more than a week for shipments to reach many remote areas. Conflict in affected regions of Indonesia and Sri Lanka complicated the relief effort.

Local Red Cross volunteers were often the first, and in some cases the only, relief workers able to respond immediately after the tidal waves struck. Red Cross and Red Crescent activities covered the gamut of human needs: the recovery of bodies, the prevention of disease, tracing, psychosocial support, relief and medical care.

The outpouring of international solidarity with the victims of the tsunami surpassed all expectations. In just 30 days, National Societies and the International Federation’s secretariat mobilized more than US$ 1.6 billion. The ICRC received over US$ 60 million for its operations in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Although the total amount of money raised is high, compared to other disasters, the overall sum being allocated to tsunami reconstruction from all sources probably does not exceed, for example, the US$ 13 billion allocated by the US government after the exceptionally destructive 2004 hurricane season in Florida.

The volume of donations raised problems for humanitarian agencies. According to the International Federation’s secretary general Markku Niskala, in an open letter to the Movement: “... it is a shared responsibility of all Movement partners to apply the highest possible standards of accountability to our respective stakeholders for effective and efficient use of resources.

”Niskala announced on 26 January that Red Cross and Red Crescent fund-raising would wind down as “we have collected sufficient resources for the emergency phase and for longer term recovery.”

Generally, fears were expressed throughout the humanitarian world that the overwhelming response to the tsunami might actually divert much-needed resources from other crises — particularly Africa.

The International Federation’s chief executive also made the point that disasters elsewhere in the world had not been put on hold. “Communities are constantly battling against nature,” Niskala wrote. “The response to the tsunami gave us a glimpse of the power of humanity.”



“I am alive”

The search for the very large number of people still missing remains high in everybody’s mind. In Indonesia, PMI volunteers and ICRC delegates toured camps for displaced people registering “I am alive” messages. Lists were then published in local media, and weeks after the tsunami they were still growing. At the same time, a web site was set up by the ICRC to register missing persons and survivors.

The PMI also registered “unaccompanied minors” — children separated from adult family members. Four-year-old Farizal Banda Aceh was one of them.

The night before the tsunami, Farizal arrived in Banda Aceh with his mother, a widow, from Lhokseumawe, a coastal town on the other side of Sumatra overlooking the Strait of Malacca. Miraculously, he survived the waves but was alone when the water receded. Slightly injured, he was brought to an emergency health centre by a police officer. There was he photographed
by the Red Cross and his picture was posted on a board at the local PMI headquarters. A local TV crew filmed it and the boy was reunited with his uncle. But his mother is still missing, like tens of thousands of other Indonesians.

Nearly two months after the tsunami, dozens of bodies still were being recovered every day by the PMI volunteers. They have evacuated some 60,000 corpses and plan to continue this work until the middle of the year. At the same time, over 300,000 people have received tents, food and material support from the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

With the relief effort to carry on until August, the Movement is also now making long-term plans for reconstruction. These will include strengthening of household livelihoods, water and sanitation repairs, health and psychosocial support, and the restoration of family links.

Coordinating one of the largest operations in the history of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is 54-year-old Johan Schaar, the International Federation’s special representative for tsunami relief. Schaar, head of Humanitarian Assistance and Conflict Management with the Swedish
International Development Agency, explained his philosophy: “The public and governments have entrusted us with tremendous resources and there [may be] expectations they should be spent immediately. But our experience is that while immediate needs must be covered, the challenge is to sustain the effort, plan for recovery and reconstruction, and use the opportunity to reduce risk.”

Contributors to this article were: Bernt Apeland, ICRC press officer in Aceh; Jessica Barry, ICRC press officer Sri Lanka; Robin Bovey, ICRC delegate for economic security in Aceh; Virgil Grandfield, International Federation information delegate in Jakarta, Indonesia; Bandula Jayasekera, International Federation information delegate in Sri Lanka; Josephine Mumukunde, Rwanda Red Cross information officer; Andrei Neacsu, International Federation regional information delegate in Nairobi, Kenya.

ICRC response

From its existing setup in Aceh, the ICRC, together with the Indonesian Red Cross, began responding to the emergency on 28 December with the distribution of tarpaulins and family kits to displaced people in Banda Aceh. Since then, the ICRC has been involved in the following relief efforts:
• Distribution of food, basic household and shelter material
• Delivery of body bags, plastic sheeting, gloves and masks for the recovery of dead bodies
• Water and sanitation work and services
• Provision of medical supplies and services
• Restoration of family links through satellite phones, Red Cross messages, media and the internet (
• Visits to detainees

Sri Lanka
The ICRC, present in northern and eastern Sri Lanka for the past 15 years, has ten offices in the country. Working closely with the Sri Lankan Red Cross Society and several National Societies, the ICRC is carrying out the following tasks:
• Delivery of family kits (floor mats, soap, buckets, cooking pots, lanterns) to displaced people in welfare centres
• Provision of water tanks and latrines in transit camps
• Equipment and staff support to hospitals and deployment of mobile basic health units
• Restoration of family links

International Federation response

Since 26 December, the International Federation has sent 18 Emergency Response Units and 240 relief flights into Asia, in coordination with the ICRC and the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The International Federation’s emergency response includes providing more than 115,000 people with clean water on a daily basis, 1,000 people per day with basic medical care, 40,000 people with shelter, food and hot drinks and 11,000 people with psychological counselling.

The International Federation began relief operation within days of the disaster. In conjunction with the Indonesian Red Cross, the International Federation has provided the following:
• Food and non-food relief packages for over 125,000 people
• Water and sanitation programme
• Basic health care
• Psychological counselling

Sri Lanka
The International Federation, together with the Sri Lankan Red Cross Society, has supplied the following:
• Food and material support
• Water and sanitation programmes
• Primary health care for the injured and sick
• Psychological and social support

The Maldives
The International Federation provided shelter, food and non-food relief items to the victims.


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