DATELINE PHUKET, TSUNAMI +48hrs
Our coverage of the new millennium’s worst disaster begins in the words of volunteer aid worker Hatairat Estrella Montien:
I was in Bangkok when the tsunami struck. An announcement was made on television requesting translators to assist with foreign tsunami victims. I can speak Thai, English and Spanish, so I sent a request to Phuket Air for myself, (I am a 27-year-old Thai woman), and my Dutch friend, Daniel Van Geijlswijk, who speaks several European languages, saying that we would like to help out at the disaster area. Phuket Air gave us free tickets.
We arrived in Phuket last Tuesday evening and were taken by the Tourist Police to work in their local station. We did not want to stay in the accommodations provided at the Tourist Police as it was inconvenient to get to the Town Hall, so we stayed in Phuket Town, paying our own way.
On Wednesday, we went to the Town Hall and were told that they needed help in Khao Lak, Phang Nga, the primary disaster area. We went there in a car with journalists and another two men who volunteered to help in the rescue effort. Anyone who had a car came to transport victims and volunteers. Many people also supplied food and drinking water.
It took us about two hours to arrive in Khao Lak. It was devastated. Almost nothing was left. The tsunami had carried a large military ship from the ocean, one mile inland. It had torn houses apart and overturned cars. Thousands of coconut trees had been uprooted.
At Khao Lak station, I went with the international diving team to look for bodies. There were five scuba divers, and six or seven helpers. They came from Phuket, most working as teachers at Dulwich International School. Two of them had been diving in Ocean Plaza in Phuket the day before to recover bodies from the basement supermarket. I accompanied them to translate English to Thai since they were working with a Thai rescue team to recover bodies.
We arrived at the Sofitel Magic Lagoon Hotel around 2 p.m. This hotel was once the most beautiful I had ever seen in. They had one of the biggest swimming pools in Asia, with a large ship moored in the swimming pool serving as a bar. It was totally destroyed.
Everything on the first floor was damaged, ruined and broken. It was impossible to imagine how a person could have survived if he or she were caught inside.
There were a few underground rooms that divers needed to clear. We started with a small room next to the beach which used to be a storage room where chemical tanks and pumps were operated by technicians.
Our divers Peter Denton and Hugo Jones went in, after we checked with an engineer the exact location of the equipment in that room for safety reasons. They found one foreigner’s body blocking the entrance. We did not have water pumps so we used buckets until the water reached a level that would allow the divers to enter. It took one hour of manual work, bucket by bucket.Some rooms were too unsafe to enter as the chemical tanks had exploded.
The water level in the smaller room was lower, allowing the divers to remove bodies. Since the corpses had been submerged in water for several days, they had doubled in size, making it harder to take
I did not want to see the bodies, but I had to be there to translate. When I first saw the dead, apart from the smell, I was OK, not having had enough time to think about it.
The first body we removed was a foreign lady who must have been swept in by the tsunami. We finally took the body out but our diver could not go in again to search as the water had risen to the original level. We checked other rooms, and called it quits for the day at 6 p.m.
On the way to the car we had to walk by corpses that the rescue team had retrieved from hotel rooms. Even though they were wrapped in white cloths, the unforgettable smell was mind-numbing. As soon as I got in the car I could no longer speak. I had pretty much handled it when I was working without time to reflect on the circumstances.
We picked up our friends, Dan and Jaroen at the Khao Lak Information station. They had been helping there while I was working with the diving crew. It took a long time to get back to Phuket as the traffic was very bad. There were a lot of rescue cars, tractors and ambulances. Many volunteers had been there to help the victims who by now had virtually nothing left.
We arrived in Phuket around 8 p.m. and I said goodbye to the dive crew. Debbie, a coordinator, gave me a big hug and asked me if I were prepared to help again the next day. At first I did not answer, but smiled, and finally said I would go back.
At that moment I had mixed feelings; I wanted to be there as much as I hated it. Yet I was willing to give my time and energy since I knew that my assistance would make their job much easier. Yet it was so hard to think about returning.
The next day, Peter Hamilton picked us up at 7 a.m. from our hotel. We collected water pumps and other equipment. At first I thought they would give us only equipment, but when we arrived, they had a full team of 12 local workers ready to go with us. They questioned me about the situation. I did not tell them much, only saying that they needed to put on masks and gloves when they arrived.
The previous day’s diving crew was told by doctors not to return to the water because of potential infection and disease. So we used a different strategy. Instead of having divers, we pumped all the water out and used a rescue team to recover the bodies.
We went back to the small, submerged room. A Thai man in his late 40s told me that he had been looking for his missing brother who normally worked in this room as a technician. He told me his brother wore a dark blue t-shirt and pants. That was exactly the same outfit worn by a dead body that was stuck inside.
The Blue Canyon staff got two water pumps running. The rescue team arrived and helped us look for the body in the water. They tried to use their camera to search in the room. After 20 minutes, the water was at a level where we could see clearly. As I served as the intermediary for the diving team, the rescue team showed me the image of another body in the room. Maybe they forgot that, I was, after all was not a professional, just a girl, as they showed me the most terrifying image I have ever seen: the rotten foot of a dead body.
I wanted to cry.
We finally moved the body out. The victim was the Thai technician that his brother had been looking for. It was finally over. They wrapped up the body and took it away.
I had a little accident. While they were pumping the water out, I was trying to help dig the place for water to run in to the sea. I fell down when carrying my equipment and twisted my left ankle. The crew went to get the water out from the sailing boat in the swimming pool (the pool bar); there were no bodies there. There were a few other spots where we pumped out water, but I did not see much as I could not really walk by then. I waited for the crew upstairs. There were a few people from the hotel management team, engineers, military crews from government and the families of missing people.
I talked to a woman named Prapaipan, who was looking for her young daughter, Thanyamath, who worked as the front desk manager at the hotel. She sat and cried constantly. She held a poster bearing her daughter’s photo and told me that she wanted to stay until she found her. She asked me what the crew would do next. She was still hoping to find her daughter somewhere.
I was deeply troubled. My mother would have done the same if she lost me. She would have hoped until the last minute that I would still be alive if she could not find my body.
Later a relative came and tried to persuade Prapaipan to go home since there was nothing much she could do there. First she refused to leave, but when the family member explained to her that she was stressing us out because she was crying all the time, she finally agreed to wait at her house.
I hope that this short account tells more about the situation. If you have not made any donation, please do not hesitate. They all need your help.
As much as I want to tell more about what I have been doing for these five days, I cannot bear to. One thing I have learned is that life is too short and good deeds matter. At the end, we all die.
(With Daniel Van Geijlswijk and Simon Osborne)
DATELINE SRI LANKA, TSUNAMI +SEVEN DAYS
By RAVI R. PRASAD
Nishanthan is barely two years old. He cannot walk because of a deformity in his waist. The child sits on the uneven sand under one of the thousands of makeshift shelters provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In spite of his handicap, Nishanthan survived. It was a miracle. His able-bodied parents and siblings were swept away by the killer wave that claimed lives of some 38,000 people in the island nation of Sri Lanka.
“All he does throughout the day is cry,” said 60-year-old Jayaratnam, a neighbor who is now taking care of Nishanthan in the welfare camp. “He keeps saying, ‘Amma, Amma,’ crying out for his mother. He doesn’t know that his mother will never come back.”
When the giant ocean wave hit, Nishanthan was seated in a plastic tub and his mother was bathing him. His fisherman father had gone to see his boat tied at the pier. The family lived along the coast at Kucchuvely village in the eastern Trincomalee district.
Jayaratnam’s wife, Sellamma, had gone to fetch some curd from Nishanthan’s mother and had seen the child. A few minutes after Sellamma returned home, the tsunami hit the coast.
Jayaratnam and Sellamma hugged a coconut tree and survived, but their two children were washed away. In the neighborhood, Nishanthan’s family was not so lucky. They perished.
When the water cleared out after half an hour, Jayaratnam heard the child crying. He spotted the basin perched on a coconut tree. The waves had thrown the plastic basin up, and it landed on the tree between the leaves. Jayaratnam climbed the tree and brought Nishanthan down. The boy did not even have a scratch.
When Jayaratnam moved with his wife to the welfare camp, he brought Nishanthan along. There was nobody to look after the disabled child, and the couple thought it was their responsibility to take care of him.
Living under a tent, sleeping on mats with a couple of bed sheets and pillows, the family of three now depends on handouts given by district officials and aid agencies. The only toy that Nishanthan has is a bucket with a lid, provided by Oxfam.
Now couple is finding it difficult to take care of the two-year-old. They are too old to bring up the child. So they have decided to send him to an orphanage. “I don’t have any income, and the needs of a growing child are far too much for me to meet,” said Jayaratnam. “My wife is suffering from arthritis, so she cannot take care of the baby.”
On Saturday Jayaratnam went to an orphanage in Trincomalee town to leave the child there. It was a harrowing experience both for him and the child. The two traveled for hours, half the time Jayaratnam carrying the child and walking because the roads are bad and no public transport is available.
Several aid agency vehicles whizzed past and Jayaratnam tried to hitch a ride, but none of them stopped. Some of them did not even have anyone other than the driver. As Jayaratnam came closer to the town, an aid agency vehicle gave him a ride in a pickup truck.
Almost two hours after he had left the camp, the man and the child reached the orphanage.
“Good that you have brought the child here,” said the matron of the orphanage, as she asked Jayaratnam to wait for a senior official. “I cannot admit the child, it has to be decided by the warden and some procedures have to be followed.”
After an hour-long wait, the warden-cum-manager of the home turned up. He complained about how he had to wait for the local government official to get food stamps for children in the orphanage.
“We cannot take the child,” said the manager, handing over a printed form to Jayaratnam. “Please fill this up, get the signatures of the Gram Sewaka (village officer), Divisional Secretary, officer of the child probation department and a relative.”
The officer told Jayaratnam that unless he got these signatures — and, most important, the death certificate of Nishanthan’s parents — the orphanage cannot accept the child.
“Where will I get the death certificates?” asked Jayaratnam. “Everyone in his family is dead. Who will inform the registrar?”
Determined to get Nishanthan a place in the orphanage, the man walked another mile to the office of registrar of birth, deaths and marriages. The office was closed for the weekend. “To get the death certificates, I need to contact the Gram Sewaka,” he said. “God knows if he survived or was killed.”
The government has banned adoption of tsunami orphans. If someone complains that Jayaratnam has kept the child, the government could take action against him.
With fear of police arresting him for sheltering Nishanthan, the old man returned to the camp walking all the way.
“Ever since the government has banned adoption, we have been flooded with requests to admit more and more orphans,” said Vyasa Kalyansundaram, a trustee of Sivananda Tapovanam children’s home. “How can the government expect an orphan child to run around and get signatures and death certificates of parents?”
Orphanages are willing to expand and take in more children, but the government rules need to be changed. “The government banned adoption without thinking about the plight of orphans. They need to change the rules for admitting children to orphanages. Many of these rules need to be scrapped,” Kalyansundaram said.
Copyright 2005 by United Press International
DATELINE MECCA, TSUNAMI +SEVEN DAYS
By ARNAUD de BORCHGRAVE
The killer wave that swallowed tens of thousands of Muslims was an act of Allah designed to punish the Christians. So went the convoluted logic of some Muslim imams in recent sermons from Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian territories.
If it weren’t for the diligent monitoring of Muslim clerics by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Americans would be in the dark about the outpourings of dangerous drivel fed to devout Muslims gathered in mosques for Friday prayers. Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajiid explained God’s tsunami punishment of Christians stemmed from “the Christian holidays [that] are accompanied by forbidden things, by immorality, abomination, adultery, alcohol, drunken dancing and revelry. A belly dancer costs 2,500 pounds a minute and a singer costs 50,000 pounds an hour, and they hop from one hotel to another from night to dawn.
“Then they spend the entire night defying Allah. … At the height of immorality, Allah took revenge on these criminals. … Allah struck them with an earthquake. He finished off the Richter scale. All nine levels gone.”
In the same vein, Sheikh Mudeiris, at a Palestinian Friday sermon in Gaza, said, “When oppression and corruption increase, the law of equilibrium applies. I can see in your eyes you are wondering what is the ‘universal law of equilibrium.’ This law is a divine law. If people are remiss in implementing God’s law and in being zealous and vengeful for His sake, Allah unleashes his soldiers in action to
In Saudi Arabia, one of last year’s measures to counter mosque-generated violence was a ban on imam’s using the word “jihad,” or holy warrior. But the content hadn’t changed much without the banned word. Saudi cleric ‘Aed Al-Qarni told the worshippers, “Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the path to victory.” He was reacting to the death of a brother “killed by the brothers of apes and pigs, the murderers of the prophets.” In case there was any doubt, he was referring to the Jews of Israel.
He then deplored lamented the lack of Muslim backbone: “One billion two hundred million nobodies. We are incapable of taking action, of being useful, of harming the Jews. The most people do today is to verbally protest over the TV channels or to demonstrate. What is the use of this? … We must sacrifice people like Abd Al-Aziz Al-Rantisi, and Ahmad Yassin, and thousands of others. Houses and young men must be sacrificed. Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the path to victory, to shahada and to sacrifice.”
Imam Al-Qani went to explain the “idolatrous” people of Vietnam, Cambodia and South Africa, “nations with no calling or divine law make sacrifices … in people, blood and souls. All the more reason we should too, the nation of Islam.”
Saudi clerics have also urged Iraqis to resist “the American occupation of Iraq.” They can urge jihad without the proscribed word for holy war. Saudi Sheikh Fawzan Fawzan said God’s unlisted number informed him the tsunami was punishment for homosexual behavior and fornication over Christmas, even if the victims are Muslims. “All that’s left for us to do,” he said, “is to ask for forgiveness. We must atone for our sins, and for the acts of the stupid people among us. … We must fight fornication, homosexuality, usury, fight the corruption on the face of the Earth, and the disregard of the lives of protected people.”
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.
DATELINE WASHINGTON, TSUNAMI +TEN DAYS
By ROLAND FLAMINI, Chief International Correspondent
WASHINGTON, (UPI) — The Asian relief effort for the tsunami disaster mobilized quickly and massively and, led by Japan, generated a major share of the global aid. The Arab world, by contrast, has lagged behind, even though the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, was the hardest hit, suffering some
Middle East media commentators have been scathing in their criticism of Arab lack of generosity and public concern. They point out that the combined pledges from the Middle East and the Gulf of around $100 million amount to a fifth of Japan’s single pledge of $500 million. Asian nations — partly because of their proximity to the disaster zone — were the first to provide logistical and emergency help. Immediate aid on the ground from Arab nations, such as doctors, nurses, and engineers has been largely and conspicuously absent.
South Korea and Taiwan have each committed $50 million in tsunami relief. As the major power in the region China has been criticized for holding back because its aid commitment to date is $64 million. But observers say that pledge probably represents about half its foreign aid budget. On Tuesday, King Fahd of the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia ordered the country’s aid commitment tripled to $30 million, “in light of the size of the tragedy and the losses.” Among the other Gulf States, Kuwait’s pledge stands at $10 million, Bahrain at $2 million, and Qatar — said to be one of the wealthiest country in the world — at $25 million. Libya’s contribution is $2 million. But no other non-Gulf Middle Eastern country has so far made an appearance on published lists of leading contributors.
Saudi Arabia plans to raise money from the public with a telethon. But Arab media have expressed anger at the apparent indifference of their governments to the tragedy. One Saudi television talk show host remarked, “Many Arab viewers have become racist. Unfortunately, the tragedy that befell Asians has no effect on many of them.”
In Kuwait, the newspaper Al Qabas created controversy by calling on Kuwait’s leadership to live up to its obligations. The special link between Kuwait and the stricken area is that Southern Asia supplies the super rich Gulf state with much of its domestic and manual labor force, and this — Al Qabas argued — was a good reason why Kuwait and its Gulf neighbors needed to be doing much more. “We have to give them more; we are rich,” the paper’s editor-in-chief, Waleed al-Nusif was quoted as saying in the New York Times Wednesday. “The price of oil doubled, so we have no excuse…They built Kuwait, and they raised our children.”
Several experts are harshly critical of Arab governments, and particularly of the Gulf states, for not being more forthcoming. “Where’s the brotherly Islamic love?” observes Middle East specialist Judith Kipper at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s the usual story of not being able to separate rich Arabs from their money. They give what Islam says they’re supposed to give, and that’s it.” One problem, Kipper says, is that “there’s no concept of civil society.”
But within the Gulf states some private donors argue that the closure of several major charitable organizations as part of the war on terror has undermined the spirit of giving, or has made it harder to find institutions to accept donations.
It is also true that while other religions have mobilized to collect relief contributions, Islamist preachers have cast the tsunami as a manifestation of divine wrath at the decadence, nudity, and immorality of now devastated tourist resorts as Phuket Island and Sumatra. This approach, preached in the mosques Friday, is said to have introduced a certain ambivalence into helping the victims.
There are also political differences. Many analysts believe tsunami aid could have a deep influence on the pattern of international relationships in Asia. The Bush administration is hoping that lavish U.S. generosity will improve America’s image in the region, and even beyond it. Japan, China, and Australia ($764 million in long term aid) are also using tsunami relief as a political tool to increase regional clout. Arab countries were not as drawn to the influence game in Asia. As a result, Arab sources point out, their pledges are not calculated to have political impact.
DATELINE PARIS, TSUNAMI +14 DAYS
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO,UPI Religious Affairs Editor
How can postmodern man — a doctrinally indifferent species, as Cardinal Paul Poupard defines him — react adequately to the deadliest natural calamity in recorded history? Almost mindlessly, television anchormen in Europe speak of the tsunami disaster’s “apocalyptical proportions,” although they seem to know little of the Book of Revelation or the Old and New Testaments’ “little apocalypses,” such as the one in the Gospel of Luke:
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26),Only Pope John Paul II, so close to the grave himself, seems to have found the appropriate words when he commended the victims — at least 120,000 as we speak — and their next of kin to the love of God.
What else is there to say, unless of course the brightest lights in Protestant theology knocked at the doors of the world’s television studios demanding to be allowed to explain to the perplexed what should be Protestantism’s greatest asset?
Words like these might be fitting: What you have been witnessing in the last days circumscribes the chasm between a grotesque contortion of God’s face and the “Deus revelatus” — the true God revealed in Christ.
The ex-Christian “homo indifferens,” of whom Cardinal Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, spoke recently in Belorussia, is in reality a religious ignoramus. He knows nothing of the faith of his ancestors, a faith that made them build cathedrals and write stirring oratorios.
He is therefore unequipped to dialogue with other faiths at a time when this has become indispensable due to the massive influx of Muslims into Europe. For as Michael Weninger, a senior Austrian diplomat and religious affairs adviser to the European Commission, insists: “Between religious illiterates no dialogue is possible.”
The same applies even more urgently to the task of explaining God’s presence in the light of the tsunami tragedy. Theodicy, the defense of God against the charge that he either wills evil in this world or is powerless against it, has always been one of the most difficult undertakings for people of faith.
But unless theologians return to the very core of Christian doctrine — that precisely by being weak and nailed to a tree God prevails in his cosmic struggle against evil — they will never succeed in this endeavor.
That this cosmic struggle is well underway seems evident to most lay people observing current events, though not to modernist theologians denying the existence of Satan. And of those, there are plenty especially in Germany where batch after batch of new theologians keeps crawling out of the Black Forest, as the saying goes.
Klaus Berger, Heidelberg University’s primary New Testament scholar, estimates that a mere 2 percent of his colleagues consider biblical texts true. Why does Berger belong to that tiny minority? Because, he says, the Gospel writers were willing to be martyred for their stories. “You don’t accept martyrdom for something you yourself have invented.”
The cross — or rather, the crucifix — is the most powerful antidote against evil, natural or otherwise, which supports the position of the defenders of icons in the perennial iconoclast controversies throughout church history.
The Rev. Rolf Sauerzapf, until recently dean of chaplains of Germany’s paramilitary border guards, used to take his troopers in the formerly communist East, to Catholic or Lutheran churches featuring the crucified Christ, in contrast to the starker sanctuaries of other denominations, which only display the empty cross.
“What is this?” the soldiers raised in an atheist environment asked. “This is our God,” Sauerzapf answered. “Instinctively, they understood that this was the Immanuel, the God with us — suffering with us,” he later related.
A special breed of pastors is needed at a time when Europeans have been deprived of any knowledge of God for two or even three generations and when, at the same time, “people are filled with longing (for God),” according to the European Commission’s Weninger.
The destruction of the family, where 90 percent of all education takes place, has led to the prevailing ignorance of and indifference to religious matters, writes Peter Hahne, Germany’s most popular television anchorman.
“This is why faithful clergymen have become so eminently necessary,” says the Rev. Michael Stollwerk, senior Lutheran pastor of the Protestant and Catholic cathedral of Wetzlar near Frankfurt, whose Christmas services were better attended this year than any in his memory: “On Christmas Eve there were 1,800. On Christmas Day there were another 1,800, and on the following day there were still 600. I have never seen this before.”
An astounding number of these worshipers were young. “Many were kids to whom I had become a substitute father or grandfather in confirmation class. Then they joined — or will join — our youth groups,” Stollwerk says. “And then we’ll have them hooked; then they will no longer be indifferent to God. ”Then they will also grasp the Biblical answer to the God question raised by horrific events such as the tsunami catastrophe: “And he (God) will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4).
DATELINE ASIA, TSUNAMI +21 DAYS
By MARTIN SIEFF
WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) — The horrendous tsunami catastrophe in South Asia has led to a rallying of human solidarity and compassion at its very best this week. But after the dead are buried and the period of immediate grieving is passed, the fallout from the tragedy is likely to weaken major governments in the region and possibly exacerbate some bitter, long-running conflicts there.
The still young Congress government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in India is likely to reel for months if not years from the tragedy. Singh had only been in power for nine months when the catastrophe occurred and whatever culpability his government faces for the fatal lack of disaster preparedness along Indian’s coastlines should in justice be shared with the previous Hindu nationalist-led government of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Nevertheless, the catastrophe struck on Singh’s watch. And already hard questions are being asked in the Indian press about the two and a half fatal hours during which the government knew, or should have known, that huge tidal waves were racing westward across the Indian Ocean following the unprecedented earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale early Sunday morning below the ocean.
Almost as bad, there will now be the sense of an ill-starred fate hanging over Singh and his policies that marked a radical break from those of the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Vajpayee.
A similar sense of ill-starred omens is likely to overshadow strongly pro-American President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono across the ocean in Indonesia, where the death toll from the disaster was highest.
At least 80,000 people are now known to have died on the island of Sumatra alone. The eventual death toll could soar far above 100,000 on it. And the worst hit part of the giant island was the energy rich province of Aceh at its northern tip where guerrilla secessionist forces have been waging a fierce struggle for independence for years.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, all thoughts of human conflict have been swamped by the colossal horrors inflicted by an uncaring Nature. But antennae of the people of Aceh have been honed to alertness by decades of what they regard as shameless exploitation of their riches by the old 32-year military dictatorship of President Suharto from 1966 to 1998. It would not take much to revive suspicions that aid was being given to other, more favored regions first or that the government was simply uncaring and incompetent in dealing with the huge scale of the catastrophe to stir up new resentments.
There is plenty of precedent in South Asia for natural catastrophes being the harbinger of wars and revolutions. The great Bengal famine of 1943 cost the lives of two to four million people. Historians agree the main cause of the huge death toll was a combination of complacency, incompetence and lack of compassion by British wartime officials who were criminally negligent in waking up to the scale of the disaster. But the immediate political result was to destroy Hindu-Muslim community relations in Bengal with many people in each community convinced the other one was hoarding food and deliberately increasing their suffering.
Within four years, Bengal was torn apart by ferocious Hindu-Muslim clashes at independence in 1947 that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The province remains divided between India and the independent Muslim nation of Bangladesh to this day.
Natural disaster triggered war and revolution again in the same area only a quarter of a century later. The inhabitants of the region, then known as East Pakistan, were convinced that the Pakistani government a thousand miles away made no effort to relieve their sufferings after between 300,000 to a million people were killed in a huge tidal surge caused by unprecedented cyclones in the Bay of Bengal in November 1970. Again, mass resentment quickly turned violent and led to a national liberation struggle that cost hundreds of thousands more lives against Pakistan until India intervened the following year and ensured the independence of the nation of Bangladesh.
Sri Lanka, a third nation heavy hit by last Sunday’s tsunamis, has long been rent apart by a bitter ferocious guerrilla-terror war waged by the Tamil Tigers. There too, the wrath of nature has temporarily drowned mere human hatreds. But whether the traumatic experience leads to a new era of moderation, compromise and goodwill or a renewal of old, bitter feuds has yet to be seen.
There is more recent precedent too for a terrible natural disaster catalyzing long festering resentment at an entrenched and incompetent government that was soon after swept out of office.
The great swathe of urban squalor and misery that sweeps crescent-like north of Istanbul and then eastward for 80 miles across the southern shore of the Black Sea is home to 10 million people. This usually forgotten region of Turkey briefly hit the international headlines in 1999 when the terrible Izmit earthquake killed 23,000 people.
The death toll was so horrendous because, as we noted in UPI Analysis at the time, developers had run up hundreds of shoddily built apartment blocks in defiance of building codes.
On Aug. 20, 1999, we warned in these columns, “The disaster may boost the appeal of Turkey’s Islamic fundamentalists at the expense of the government, ultimately threatening Turkey’s strong ties to the West. Turkey is a NATO member — the only Muslim nation.”
And sure enough, the anger and despair fostered by this event funneled a new wave of support to the Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan that propelled it to its landslide election victory in November 2002.
Singh in India and Yudhoyono in Indonesia will soon be made aware of how closely the survivors and relatives of the dead will be scrutinizing the record of their actions both before and after the unprecedented events of last Sunday.
However long they stay in power and whatever achievements they complete or attempt, from now on everything they do will be under the shadow of that judgment.