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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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
“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
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.
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
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.”
© REUTERS / YVES HERMAN, COURTESY, www.alertnet.org
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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 —
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.”
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
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.
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
• Distribution of food, basic household and shelter
• 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 (www.familylinks.icrc.org)
• Visits to detainees
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
• Provision of water tanks and latrines in transit
• 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
• Water and sanitation programme
• Basic health care
• Psychological counselling
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 International Federation provided shelter, food
and non-food relief items to the victims.