Thursday, December 30, 2004

How do you empathise with disaster victims?

The scale of the Asian disaster is horrifying.

Some numbers from the New York Times, where articles update by the minute:

76 000 now confirmed dead.

Reported deaths now cover at least 40 nationalities, reaching from South Africa to South Korea, with surprising concentrations of people still unaccounted for from European countries.

Those still missing include 1,500 from Sweden and 700 to 800 from Norway, 300 from New Zealand, more than 200 each from Denmark and the Czech Republic, 100 from Germany, 100 from Italy and 188 Israelis.

These numbers will get far worse.

20,000 to 30,000 Swedish tourists were vacationing at Thai beach resorts when the disaster struck.

"Thailand is one of the most popular places for Swedes to go during Christmas and New Year's," he said. "Only six Swedes have been confirmed dead, but we think many, many more people have died."

The Indonesian government's official death toll stood today at 32,836, with an additional 1,240 people registered as missing. But that number did not count any of the people who have likely been killed in Aceh Barat, the district where Meulaboh is located.

Attention has also shifted to the broad flat region to the south around the city of Meulaboh, about 100 miles from here, where officials now estimate that as many as 40,000 of the district's 174,744 people may have been killed.

If things go on at this rate, my guess is that there will be well over 100 000 dead. They are only now going to islands that are off the map where they are finding survivors living off coconuts.

But what makes it difficult to deal with is that it is easy to get caught up in these numbers. For each number there is a family suffering immense loss.

Before they found themselves at the epicenter of this week's disaster, tsunami was not even a word in the local lexicon for people here, including Yusmadi Sulaiman, a 60-year-old delivery man, and many of his neighbors.

That changed in an instant on Sunday morning. After being shaken awake, Mr. Sulaiman found himself and his wife and four children fleeing a massive wave that rose above the coconut trees on his street near the shore here.

He clung to a tree with his 4-year-old son in his arms, only to see the son slip away into the raging waters.

His wife, a short distance away, held on to their 8-month-old daughter and called to her husband. "Hold me, Bang, hold me," she yelled, using the Indonesian term of reverence for a spouse.

He has not seen his wife or his four children for four days but he still searches the streets for them, hoping they might still be alive. "Maybe there's a chance," he said, as he sat by candlelight in a friend's home, with the electricity out.

In a region known even in this Muslim country for its strict adherence to Islam, the devastation represents a test of faith. "In Muslim society, God only gives us his goodness and we have to learn lessons from a disaster like this," said Zulkarnain, a 33-year-old salesman who escaped the flood waters with his family. "This may be God saying he is angry with human conduct in the world."

For Mr. Sulaiman, who lost his entire family, comfort came in the words of friends and relatives who gathered with him today for evening prayer.

As he told the story of having lost his son's grip during the flooding, Ucyusi Rusadi Pura, a businessman from Jakarta whose company employs Mr. Sulaiman rested his hand on his shoulder.

"It's not your fault, it's not your fault," Mr. Pura told the tearful Mr. Sulaiman. "We're your family too and we'll stand by you through all of this."

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