Annan tours worst destruction he has ever seen at tsunami’s ground zero

7 January 2005

A day after launching the largest relief appeal ever in United Nations history for a natural disaster, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today visited the area most devastated by last week’s Indian Ocean tsunami and said: “I have never seen such utter destruction, mile after mile.

“And you wonder where are the people, what happened to them?” he added after taking a helicopter tour over Aceh, the worst-hit province on the north of Sumatra island in Indonesia, which accounted for about two-thirds of the 150,000 people so far estimated to have died in the disaster.

The helicopter took Mr. Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Rodrigo De Rato and Asian Development Bank President Tedeo Chino to the town of Meulaboh on Sumatra’s west coast, an area UN officials have called “ground zero” of the disaster that struck a dozen countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The death toll in Meulaboh, just 150 kilometres from the epicentre of the undersea earthquake that spawned the tsunami on 26 December, has been put as high as one-third of the town’s population of 120,000.

Mr. Annan touched down at the town’s airport where the military commander briefed him on clean-up operations, the restoration of potable water and electricity and the rebuilding of schools, and told him he did not have enough tents for tens of thousands of displaced people.

The Secretary-General, accompanied by his wife, Nane, then examined the damage done to the town and saw frogmen searching for bodies offshore, while fishing boats lay overturned in the streets amid buildings that had collapsed.

“I believe that in time, given support and effort by the government and the international community, the people will be able to pick up the pieces and carry on,” Mr. Annan told a news conference in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh on his return from the tour. “But they are going to need lots of help.”

Yesterday Mr. Annan launched a $977 million flash appeal for immediate emergency aid, including food, clean drinking water, medicines and shelter for up to 5 millions survivors in five of the worst-hit countries – Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and Somalia – and called on world leaders to pay in full the more than $3 billion already been pledged for relief and reconstruction operations.

“We saw many people who were traumatized,” he said today. “We visited some of the displaced people in the camps, and they are going to need help with post-traumatic stress. They’re going to need help to build their homes. They’re going to need help – I was going to say they’re going to need help to go back to fishing, but of course, you need to build the houses along the coast if you are going to build before you can fish.”

Mr. Annan praised the efforts of the so-called core group, the United States, Australia, India and Japan, as “absolutely crucial.”

“They have the logistical capability to be able to come in and ensure that, despite the lack of infrastructure and logistics, we will be able to get things [done],” he said. “And they helped with heavy equipment, they helped with the airport and now, of course with the helicopters and all other [things], they’re also helping with distribution, getting the food to the needy. And they are working with the UN team and others, and the government.”

Despite some minor problems, “on the whole, the cooperation is going well,” he added.

He called criticism that the UN was slow in starting the relief effort unfair. “I think we move as quickly as we can,” he said. “And you also have to understand, the UN is as strong as its members. We are as capable as the members help and allow us to be. We have no assets; we need to rely on governments.

“Without the support, as I said, of the United States and other people with logistic capability, we would not have been able to move. And in fact, you would have said, we’ve been very, very late. I think we’ve moved as fast as we can and the government and the people in the region do agree with me that we are doing everything we can to act fast.”