March 23, 2005

Tsunami Survivors Feel Abandoned

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, (AFP) -- Stunned by the scale of last year's tsunami disaster, countries around the world pledged billions of dollars. But with some survivors yet to see more than a few sacks of rice, many feel abandoned by the relief effort.

Days after the December 26 disaster, the United Nations launched a "flash appeal" for almost one billion dollars of hard cash as governments outbid each other with aid offers that, if realised, would top 10 billion.

Concerns that graft and mismanagement would gnaw into funds have placed donations under heavy scrutiny, yet there are also fears that huge promises of help will simply fail to manifest into worthwhile assistance.

While senior relief officials say it is too early to determine whether the money will reach those in need, for those on the ground there is already disappointment as immediate needs overshadow long-term prospects.

"We cannot live with just rice, I also have children with school needs and we have practically nothing to live -- clothes, household equipment and other things," said Buniyamin, a street vendor in the badly hit Indonesian city of Banda Aceh.

Like thousands of others who lost their homes, the 41-year-old lives with his family in a tented camp on the outskirts of the demolished city, trying to make ends meet with no fixed income.

"We have been given cooking oil and sugar only about three times, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) each per family, but that does not last long with a family of six," he said.

Those who have moved into barracks built by the government to house homeless survivors say the situation in the shelters is little better.

"We receive rice and sometimes cooking oil and instant noodles, but my children keep asking when they can eat meat or chicken," said Nuryati, a housewife who lost her husband and one of her three children in the tsunami.

Aid officials say despite the unprecedented size of the relief operation, efforts to deliver emergency assistance to survivors were a success.

"The challenge of ensuring that you are reaching out to all who have been affected is like nothing the aid community has ever seen," said Michele Lipner, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"We estimate that one-quarter of the population of Aceh has been affected by the disaster, that is around one million, an enormous number. But I am actually very confident that we have indeed provided humanitarian assistance to those most in need," she told AFP.

Other relief officials admit shortcomings, with limited aid failing to meet broader requirements of survivors already looking towards the future.

"People need money to supplement their diet and pay for other needs, and the government has not yet begun to address this issue," said Prass Prawoto, coordinator in Aceh for Indonesian non-government group Pusaka Indonesia.

"They should have access to small loans or work. Aid should be more varied and also orientated towards encouraging economic recovery," he said.

Dissatisfaction with the aid effort has been registered in countries hit by the disaster around the Indian Ocean.

Thailand turned down offers of foreign financial help, as did India. But while there have been few problems in the former, India has been experiencing glitches with its internal aid flow.

Oxfam's Indian spokeswoman Aditi Kapoor said that while relief efforts initially ran smoothly, there were now clashes between federal and at least one state government on how best to assist those affected.

"The federal government wants to give loans for boats to the fishermen, while state government wants the money in the form of grants because it feels the people will not be able to repay loans," Kapoor said.

Bigger headaches have emerged in Sri Lanka, where President Chandrika Kumaratunga has griped that "not even five cents" of assistance had been directly received by the state.

Finance ministry officials in Colombo said that of more than 884 million dollars in pledges, 95.5 million had been received -- just 13 million directly to state coffers.

The Indonesian government said despite being the intended destination of at least half of all aid, it had only received three million dollars in cash, with the rest being channelled through the UN or non-government groups.

Cherie Hart, spokeswoman for the UN's Development Programme in Asia, said although there had been initial grumblings, a full assessment of the relief effort was still premature.

"The response was so overwhelming and so fast, I think it is way too early to say that promises aren't being met," she said.