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Tsunami Death Toll Tops 40,000; UN Launches Biggest Relief Effort Ever

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We go to Indonesia, India and the Maldive Islands for on-the-ground reports on the world’s deadliest tsunami in 120 years. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, also joins us in the studio. [includes rush transcript]

The death toll from Sunday’s devastating tsunamis in the Indian Ocean has now topped 40,000 and expected to grow higher. As many as a third of the dead are believed to be children. Sri Lanka has put its official death toll at over 18,000 people. In Indonesia, the country’s vice president is estimating that up to 25,000 people may have died in the province of Aceh alone. Thousands more have died across India, Thailand, Somalia, Malysia and the Maldive Islands

Millions of people are homeless and doctors fear epidemics could quickly spread among the displaced populations.

All told 11 nations are still recovering from the tsunamis caused by a massive underwater earthquake near Indonesia. Registering a magnitude of 9.0 it was the largest earthquake in 40 years. The resulting tsunamis were the deadliest the world has seen in 120 years.

One United Nations official said, “This may be the worst natural disaster in recent history.” Agence France Press reports the relief effort is the largest the world has even seen. It will also likely be the costliest. Billions of dollars will be needed to feed and house survivors as well as rebuild cities.

The Bush administration agreed to give an initial donation of $15 million but the small amount was quickly criticized.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland criticized the U.S. for being quote “stingy.” Secretary of State Colin Powell said the $15 million is just the first installment of aid.

We go now to hear reports from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldive Islands and India.

  • John Budd, UNICEF representative in Indonesia.
  • Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, Permanent Representative for Sri Lanka to the United Nations.
  • J. Sri Raman, journalist and peace activist who lives in the Indian fishing village of Chennai, an area that was devastated by the tsunami. He is a frequent contributor to the Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times, and to the website He is also the author of the book “Flashpoint How the US, India and Pakistan Brought Us to the Brink of Nuclear War” published by Common Courage Press.
  • Tom Bergmann-Harris, head of the UNICEF office in the Maldives. He spoke to us from the capital city of Male.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In just a few minutes, we’re joined by the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations. But first we go to Indonesia, to John Budd of UNICEF.

JOHN BUDD: We are now beginning to get reports in as yet unconfirmed about the deaths that have been occurring in areas of Northern Sumatra, in the province of Aceh in which it seems to be a lot of villages and small towns there are reporting up to eighty percent of the people have been killed. These are very isolated areas along the Sumatran coast which faces the Indian Ocean. So, access to these areas is extremely difficult because it’s very mountainous. The mountains go right down to the sea. And we are getting these reports from the government of Indonesia, people who are on the ground and are getting out and about to see what the situation is in these areas now that they know the extent of the damage and the destruction and the deaths in the major areas. That information is coming via our colleagues and counterparts in the government. The government of Indonesia has opened up the province to the international relief agencies to send supplies and indeed send staff in there to assess the extent of the problems and the extent of what is required; because, previous to that, it was extremely difficult to get into the province because there had been a conflict that had been waged there. So, we will be sending in tomorrow — UNICEF will be going in tomorrow to make its preliminary assessment of exactly what will be required in terms of relief. In the meantime, we are sending on Friday, maybe even as early as Thursday, but certainly Friday, arriving in Indonesia will be health supplies, emergency health kits for 200,000 people to last for two weeks. Now, we assess at the moment, excluding the information I just provided to you before, that half a million people have been affected by the tsunami. So we believe that because of that, and because the water supply has been knocked out, electricity is cut as is most telecommunication nets all down, we are assessing that there will be severe health problems there caused by disease and diarrhea problems very shortly. Therefore, we are sort of focusing our initial efforts on emergency health kits and hygiene kits to get to the people there, and we can get to 200,000 of the half a million people who are affected by this disaster. The hardest part for us will be actually distributing them on the ground, because the area is essentially not in contact with the rest of the world, if you like. We are very reliant on — on making our estimates of what will be required. So we — we have — we are basically working a little bit in the dark, but we believe that this will be absolutely vital requirements for Aceh.

To tell you the — the extent of the damage, the UNICEF office has been knocked out there. It only took us until today to find out whether our staff member who ran there was okay. He’s okay, but we still haven’t found the UNICEF driver up there. So, the difficulties are enormous. We cannot underestimate exactly how difficult it is going to be to provide relief into that area. And that is why we’re proceeding quite cautiously, knowing that, you know, Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and the capital where all the government bureaucracy and all the officials lie is — is wrecked. So, therefore, it is virtually rebuilding and starting again.

AMY GOODMAN: John Budd with UNICEF, speaking to us from Jakarta, Indonesia. This is Democracy Now!, as we turn now to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations who joins us in our studio, Bernard Goonetilleke. Welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what’s happening with Sri Lanka. Along with Aceh, it looks like the hardest hit of this global calamity, one of the worst — well, the worst tsunami in more than a century.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Well, despite the distance from Aceh, it appears to us that Sri Lanka has taken a direct hit, the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, southern coast of Sri Lanka, and even the western coast. We have large numbers of dead and destruction to property and infrastructure. And we have not experienced this kind of natural calamity before ever in our lifetime.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you place Sri Lanka geographically for, I would say, Americans, a very insulated audience?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Yes, it is easy. If you know where India is, it is directly south of India. It’s a small island, size is something like 25,000 square miles. Population, we have approximately 19 million people. And now we are speaking of 18,000 casualties. That is by counting the numbers of dead, but we have also to remember the fact that massive numbers would have also — would have drowned, and with the receding waves would have gone into the sea. So the exact number of casualties, it will take some time for us to understand the magnitude of the disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Exactly when did the tsunami hit?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: This happened in the morning of Sunday, 26th, around 10 o’clock in the morning Sri Lanka time.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you have any warning?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: There was no warning whatsoever. In fact, even the people who — by the beachside — that being a holiday would have not known what was going to happen because there are no early warning systems. And unlike in the case of cyclones or what we call here tornadoes or floods, which we are accustomed to. There is early warning. But this type of tidal waves, there is no — absolutely no early warning system.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe the areas hardest hit.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Well, Sri Lanka is populated — mainly populated in the southern side, the western side. But the impact of the tidal wave was mostly felt on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. But despite the fact that the southern coast was also affected, we have —-according to the information we have, the entire eastern coast, southern coast, as well as the part of the southwestern area -— these areas have been affected — and western coast is the most populous areas of this island.

AMY GOODMAN: And who in particular is affected?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Well, we have large populations living in the coastal areas. First, we have the families who live by fishing, and those people would have got affected, together with their fishing equipment, boats and whatever they have use for their occupation. Then we have large numbers of tourist resorts stretched all the way along the beach from the western coast to southern coast. And mind you, this is the season, height of the season, immediately after the Christmas, and there would have been large numbers of tourists, as well as local people holidaying in those areas. So we have people living in the coastal areas, as well as the tourists, both local and foreign, would have got affected.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the situation with the Tamils? There has been a struggle for a long time in Sri Lanka .The Wall Street journal is noting that Sri Lanka is one of the most heavily land mined countries in the world. U.N. officials fearing that the massive flooding moved many of the mines and washed away the markers.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: I don’t entirely agree with the statement that it’s the most heavily land mined areas in the world. But we have large numbers of land mine, remnants of the armed conflict which we had for about two decades. Fortunately, the armed conflict came to an end. There is a cease-fire for the last three years. And both sides, both the government as well as the LTTE have been cooperating with international bodies for the removal of land mines. And there has been or there is a campaign that is going on to remove land mines. Not [inaudible] that you have a problem of land mines, these land mines would have got dislodged from their original places and would have floated, and certainly that would be a problem for us to deal with in the weeks and months to come.

AMY GOODMAN: We are speaking with the Ambassador from Sri Lanka at the United Nations about the devastation of the last two days. In a piece from the Associated Press, talking about the Tamil conflict and how about it is playing out right now, talking about thousands of bodies being recovered, hundred of thousands of Sri Lankans fleeing their homes. But government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels refuse to work together to locate survivors and help victims. The article goes on to say the Tigers control a vast part of Tamil majority northeastern Sri Lanka as a virtual independent state with its own administration, police, and judiciary. The government controls remaining areas. A Tamil member of Parliament said government leaders discussing relief efforts simply were not bothered about the plight of our people. Your response.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Well, I am not qualified to respond to that statement made by a Member of the Parliament representing the Tamil population, but the fact remains the Sri Lankan government administration for the last two decades have had hand in the administration, running schools and health facilities in the areas which are controlled or which are being — which is out of the government control. And it is not correct to say that the government has not looked into the plight of the Tamili people. We have an arrangement with the United Nations agencies, with UNICEF, UNDP and [inaudible] with whom we cooperate, and to providing assistance to these areas.

AMY GOODMAN: They are asking for donors to give separately. What is your response to that? To the Tamil areas?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: This has been the line which has been propagated by the LTTE for a long period of time. The fact remains as of now as in the past, government provide funding to the Tamil — the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers. It is happening even today. The most important factor is where we do not go. We have permitted the U. N. agencies to go, and we have cooperated with them [inaudible] to providing relief to the people who are in those areas.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for a minute, Ambassador, but then when we come back, I would like to ask what does Sri Lanka need right now from the world community. Also standing online, we have a journalist and peace activist from India to talk about what is happening there. We’ll also speak with the permanent representative to the United Nations of the small island nations. This is Democracy Now!, as we deal with this global calamity.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the Sri Lankan ambassador to the United Nations, Bernard Goonetilleke. We welcome you to Democracy Now! As you are talking about what you need from the world right now, Sri Lanka, one of the hardest hit countries.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Well, when you take into account the magnitude of the disaster, people will require immediately food, shelter, and medicine. Within days, people will have to have access to clean water for which our government has requested for water purification tablets from the international community, because without such facility, people will be drinking contaminated water, and they will fall sick, and we will have another disaster in our hands. So, we will require medicine. We will require clothing. We will require shelter — material for shelter-like tents and plastic sheeting. Things like that. But taking into consideration the distance between, for example, the United States and Sri Lanka, the most desirable thing to do at this point of time is to provide cash so that whatever material required by the authorities concerned could be purchased either locally or from the neighboring countries and can be rushed to the victims as early as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the Bush administration saying it would give $15 million. The U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs criticizing the U.S. for being stingy.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: I do not want to comment on the statement — that statement, but the fact remains any government will have to first have to have information with regard to the magnitude of the problem. They will have to receive information from their own embassies, and having received that kind of information, they will have to decide what kind of assistance to be provided. Mind you, this incident took place only about 72 hours ago, and I’m sure the U.S. administration would need a little bit of time to understand the situation, and to respond promptly.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think $15 million is enough?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: I’m not commenting on the $15 million. I’m commenting on the need to assess the size or the magnitude of the problem, and then to respond accordingly.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this issue of the early warning, of not having the proper notification, a system set up for the Indian Ocean?

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Unfortunately, we don’t have a system of that nature, and I hope what happened three days ago would be an eye-opener for the countries in the region to come up with that kind of a system which would provide the barest amount of time for people to either create and reach areas of safety.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us here on Democracy Now! We have been joined by Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. Thank you.

BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn to India, to J. Sri Raman, a journalist and peace activist who lives in the Indian fishing village of Chennai, an area that’s been devastated by the tsunami. J. Sri Raman is a frequent contributor to the Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times, to the website,, and wrote the book, Flashpoint: How the U.S., India and Pakistan Brought Us to the Brink of Nuclear War. Now dealing with another catastrophe, J. Sri Raman, can you describe where you are and how your country is affected?

J. SRI RAMAN: I am speaking from Chennai, one of the areas hit by the tsunami. As you will notice out of India, the state of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, is one of the worst hit areas. In this one state there have been well over 7,000 deaths so far, and as you said, the number — the total is rising all the time. And on the whole of India, the figures shall have already cost 8,000. So it’s a very, very terrible, terrible tragedy. And more than that, it totally — unprepared for the tragedy. Nobody was prepared for it. As I was returning the totals this morning, I think this is a tragedy we should have been prepared for. I don’t agree with the official [inaudible] that this is something that nobody would ever have anticipated. The [inaudible] had been warning of such a disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to J. Sri Raman. Can you geographically place Chennai for us, where you are speaking from?

J. SRI RAMAN: Geographically it’s the capital of Tamil Nadu in the south of India. I live in a place 700-800 meters from the sea. So, it’s an area about very much a coastal area, so I was — I happened to be an eyewitness to all that was happening, even though the city, my area, was not affected directly. It was the sea stopped just south of my area. But I was eyewitness to the panic here, and it was just lucky, I guess, that this area was spared. This is a area, as I said, you know, it’s on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, which is known as a very gentle sea. Chennai, formerly known as Madras, has a very famous beach called Marina Beach, which is known for its very gentle kind of beauty and it was a kind of this other place or planet that they go to this morning. It’s very, very gentle place, and people have never known anything like this before. Just three years ago, [inaudible] that was the very first time, I think, in living memory that they ever knew from experience an earthquake, but that should have been a warning. But the warning was not taken very seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done right now?

J. SRI RAMAN: What could be done right now, immediately, of course, what is called for is the relief operations on a massive scale because the people affected are the poorest of the poor, mostly fishermen and fishermen who put out to sea on very ancient, primitive kind of rafts and who undoubtedly drown in this kind of a situation. They don’t have even proper fishing boats. People living in makeshift hamlets on the coastal areas, and they have all been dispossessed, and are entirely homeless. What we need — immediately need is, of course, assistance and relief operations, but I think also almost immediately India and the rest of this demolished region starts to talk — start thinking about not only an early warning system but also about protecting the coastal environment. The whole region has almost lost its coast. The coastal protection, [inaudible] lost, because absolutely indiscriminate building and this so-called tourist industry where five-star hotels fall along the route. This has been done in areas that this has been prohibited. [inaudible] we say they should not have been built in the area. But they have been violated in [inaudible] the rich and [inaudible] real estate people. And even the state, which is the interest in making, you know, easy tourist money.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to a guest right now in India, speaking about the tsunami that has taken place. J. Sri Raman is speaking to us from the village of Chennai, an area that was devastated by the tsunami. We’re going to turn right now to the Maldives, to Tom Bergmann-Harris, who is head of the UNICEF office in the Maldives, speaking to us from the capital.

TOM BERGMANN-HARRIS: The situation is worse than expected only yesterday. We have about two-thirds of the entire population affected. Probably up to 100,000 homeless, 50% of them are children. Many people are being evacuated from their islands that have been either partially or totally destroyed. We have as the biggest problems lack of drinking water, food, and oral rehydration salts because we already have diarrhea and disease outbreaks. The UNICEF is working together with the sister agencies represented in the Maldives. We have had several meetings with the government. We are launching procurement of supplies for UNICEF, for example, that is, food items, hygiene, sanitation, and other items, tents, clothes for children, because many of the people who are being evacuated or have been evacuated have literally lost everything. They have nothing left from their belongings. They often have only the clothes they are actually wearing. The biggest challenge is to bring in the relief supplies as quickly as possible, because water, drinking water is very scarce. One out of five islands has no longer potable water, and the resources are destroyed. We have to be very fast in bringing in water and food supplies. These are the most important elements at this stage, and the speed is — speed with which supplies are brought in is highly important, apart, of course, from financial resources to pay for supplies.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Bergmann-Harris, head of the UNICEF office in the Maldives.

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