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The Hell That is South Asia

January 4, 2004
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

The Asia quake/tsunami disaster hit too close to home: My wife had been in southern Thailand, at the beaches, only a week before the disaster struck; I had been in Southeast Asia a week before that.

Watching the horrific images on CNN and the other news channels had put me in a state of shock; watching parents shrieking as their children got swept out to sea, I was wracked by sobs myself, and turned into a sack of torpor. This was just too awful for words. I couldn't sit down and write anything, not even the most rudimentary blog.

As I compose this now, the death toll is way over 100,000, and climbing almost exponentially by the hour. A half-million are wounded. Thousand upon thousands are missing. Many outlying villages haven't even been checked yet. More than three million are homeless. The largest relief campaign in history has begun.

My wife and I had seen first-hand how so many Asian villages existed in symbiosis to the water, dependent on the easy access for their simple boats to the fish that was their livelihood. We had seen evidence of homes built on raised blocks along the rivers, because of the periodic flooding.

But we had seen nothing like the images pouring out of our TV: walls of water crashing through beaches and towns and, with nothing to stop them, continuing across the flat land, crushing everything in their path.

POVERTY ON TOP OF POVERTY

The saddest realization was that these people were desperately poor to begin with, living day by day from fishing or service work or in low-paying jobs provided by tourism. And now, not only had the survivors lost spouses and children, but so many had lost their homes, their villages, and their livelihoods.

Who knows what will take the place, if anything can take the place, of what they have lost? Who knows, for example, how long it will take before foreign tourists will want to return to this scary, battered area of the world? (It took five to 10 years for Hawaii to recover its tourist trade in Kauai in the '80s after a devastating hurricane that ruined so many of the hotels and beaches and vegetation. Thailand, for example, figures it will lose $750 million in tourist revenues in the next few months.)

It was precisely those anticipated tourist revenues that kept an early-warning about possible tsunamis from going out to the resorts in Thailand. The government didn't want to scare tourists away. Read Keith Olbermann's blog.

How do the residents of Thailand and Sri Lanka and Indonesia survive in the meantime, even if disease epidemics do not add to their ongoing tragedy?

These are kind, hard-working, warm people. Yes, they have their religions to sustain them (mainly Buddhism in Thailand, Islam in Indonesia, Hinduism in India), and there is the beginning of an immense international relief effort to aid them through this immediate crisis, but so many are broken by their losses and faced with the daunting task of starting over, from scratch.

And this assessment doesn't even take into account the ecological damage wrought by the salty water to the croplands and rice paddies and vegetation. One survivor described the situation in which he found himself simply as "Hell." Nobody around him disagreed.

BUSH WAS "ON VACATION"

While other world leaders began to address the calamity quickly - speaking openly to their citizens and to the victims of the Asia tragedy, promising huge amounts of money and other aid - a vacationing George W. Bush, lost in the solipsistic vision that protects him from reality, did and said virtually nothing. A deputy press secretary issued the first generic expression of America's sadness. Fifteen million dollars were pledged.

Only when the outcry against this cold-hearted behavior grew loud - a United Nations official, for example, calling some of the developed countries "stingy" for their meager initial promises of aid, when billions are needed - did Bush emerge, five days into the developing story, to express his personal sadness, and the promised relief aid was upped to a miserly 35 million. (By comparison, one writer estimates that the U.S. is spending about $9.5 million PER HOUR in Iraq alone.)

The American people, always generous and warm-hearted, immediately inundated non-governmental relief agencies with millions and millions of dollars and offers of help, putting into stark relief the grudging, parsimonious "compassionate conservatism" of their governmental leaders. (For a list of relief agencies accepting donations, see below).

Once again, the Bush Administration misread Asia, and ignored a chance to try to gain some good P.R. in an area of the world already very suspicious of U.S. intentions and policies. As I wrote in my recent Southeast Asia report, not one person who spoke to me in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia had a positive thing to say about Bush and U.S. policy.

This was not damage in Asia from an ordinary monsoon or typhoon or flooding. This was calamity on a scale the world had rarely seen. The response should have been commensurate with the enormity of the problem. But Bush and the tight-knit coterie around him sat silent for days - was it ignorance? Lack of caring? Confusion? - and their response to an extraordinary event was embarrassingly ordinary and generic.

HOW TO SEND AID TO THE AREA

For those wishing to join their fellow citizens in sending what those devastated countries need most right now - funds for immediate help, and for the coming reconstruction projects - below is the Associated Press list, posted on DemocraticUnderground.com.

Also check out internet activist Daniel Patrick Welch's note:

The Greenhouse School community has connections to many countries, and it is no surprise that the recent devastation in the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean is no exception. Our parents Hong and Tharva Net have a good friend in Phuket who has gone missing, and our prayers are with them for her safe rescue. The children are of course affected by the tragedy, although they are a bit young to grasp its enormity. We have decided to interrupt our own holiday appeal and expand and redirect our efforts to raise a supplemental amount of money we can for relief efforts.

One of our trustees, Jessica Stevens, has a contact on the island of Koh Phra Thong, in Phang Nga, Thailand, who is setting up a relief fund. We would like to collect donations for this purpose. Koh Phra Thong (which translates as Golden Buddha Island) is in a small chain of islands which have been devastated by the tsunami. Three fishing villages are in almost complete ruins, and even a small donation may have a significant impact. It is important for GHS as a community, even in the midst of struggling through our own budget, to teach our students to reach outside themselves to the larger world community. We will begin accepting donations immediately, and the children will participate in activities to raise a small amount of money toward this relief effort.

Thank you for your thoughts and your participation. If you are already giving to Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross or other efforts, we do not want to divert funds from those. However, if you would like to be part of our effort, send a check to the school. (Please write "disaster relief" in the memo of the appropriate check) Send donations to us at:

The Greenhouse School
145 Loring Avenue
Salem, MA 01970

(or use PayPal through our site, www.greenhouseschool.org, and we will combine donations to make one larger payment to efforts on the island. We have no illusions about the limits of our ability to help. We will, however, try to do our share as world citizens. Thank you for joining us. Peace, Danny.)

ADMIRABLE RELIEF AGENCIES

List of agencies helping quake/tsunami victims. Among my favorites are Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, and World Vision.

Action Against Hunger
247 West 37th Street, Suite 1201
New York, NY 10018
212-967-7800
www.aah-usa.org

American Jewish World Service
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018
800-889-7146
www.ajws.org

ADRA International
9-11 Fund
12501 Old Columbus Pike
Silver Spring, MD 20904
800-424-2372
www.adra.org

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC Crisis Fund)
1501 Cherry Street
Philadelphia, PA
215-241-7000
www.afsc.org

Catholic Relief Services
PO Box 17090
Baltimore, MD 21203-7090
800-736-3467
www.catholicrelief.org

Direct Relief International
27 South La Patera Lane
Santa Barbara, CA 93117
805-964-4767
www.directrelief.org

Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres
PO Box 2247
New York, NY 10116-2247
888-392-0392
www.doctorswithoutborders.org

International Medical Corps
1919 Santa Monica Boulevard Suite 300
Santa Monica CA 90404
800-481-4462
FAX 310-442-6622

1600 K St. NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20006
202-828-5155
www.imcworldwide.org/index.shtml

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
PO Box 372
CH-1211 Geneva 19
Switzerland
41-22-730-4222
www.ifrc.org

International Orthodox Christian Charities
Middle East Crisis Response
PO Box 630225
Baltimore, MD 21263-0225
877-803-4622
www.iocc.org

Lutheran World Relief
PO Box 17061
Baltimore MD 21298-9832
800-597-5972
www.lwr.org

MAP International
2200 Glynco Parkway
PO Box 215000
Brunswick, GA 3121-5000
800-225-8550
http://www.map.org

Mercy Corps
PO Box 2669
Portland, OR 97208
800-852-2100
www.mercycorps.org

Northwest Medical Teams
PO Box 10
Portland, OR 97207-0010
503-624-1000
www.nwmedicalteams.org

Operation USA
8320 Melrose Avenue, Ste. 200
Los Angles, CA 90069
800-678-7255
www.opusa.org

Relief International
11965 Venice Blvd.405
Los Angeles, CA 90066
800-572-3332
www.ri.org

Save the Children
Asia Earthquake/Tidal Wave Relief Fund
54 Wilton Road
Westport, CT 06880
800-728-3843
www.savethechildren.org

US Fund for UNICEF
333 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
800-FOR-KIDS
www.unicefusa.org

World Concern
19303 Fremont Ave. N
Seattle, WA 98133
800-755-5022
www.worldconcern.org

World Relief
7 E. Baltimore St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
443-451-1900
www.wr.org

World Vision
PO Box 70288
Tacoma, Washington 98481-0288
888-56-CHILD
www.worldvision.org

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., co-editor of The Crisis Papers, formerly was a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and has taught government and international relations at various universities.

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