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Life in disaster
Star-Bulletin reporter Craig Gima is traveling through Southeast Asia to report on tsunami relief efforts.
In the parts of the city on higher ground, untouched by the tsunamis, almost all electrical services have been restored and the street markets are open with fresh local produce. Supermarkets are filled with shoppers, including foreign relief workers buying locally.
The Indonesian army and GAM, the Free Aceh Movement guerrillas, even began shooting at each other again on Sunday, despite a cease-fire following the disaster and the beginnings of peace talks between the government and the rebel group.
The death toll in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand -- three of the hardest-hit countries -- continues to rise as the missing are confirmed dead, even though some of the bodies may never be found and positively identified.
The current tally, always a rough estimate in these kinds of situations, is about 280,000 killed. In neighborhoods in the Aceh province, they are still pulling bodies out of the mud.
This morning at the hotel complex where the U.S. military is housing personnel deployed to Operation Unified Assistance, about 350 people attended a service to mark the one-month anniversary of the disaster.
Military chaplains from five countries and four faiths offered prayers for victims, survivors and rescuers.
Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman Jr., the commander of Operation Unified Assistance, asked the 350 service members and civilians to pause for a moment and think about what they are accomplishing.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been helped by the efforts of the combined support force, he said.
"When the wall of water tore their lives apart," Blackman said, the survivors were stuck in hopelessness and despair.
"What we have done is bring hope to those who had no future," he continued.
After the service, an honor guard marched with a memorial wreath to the beach at the hotel and set the wreath into the sea. Participants threw white roses into the ocean afterward.
Then people got back to work.
The transition from military to civilian relief efforts is going "more rapidly than we thought," Lt. Col. Robert Krieg, lead future operations planner for Operation Unified Assistance, said in an interview yesterday.
U.S. military operations near Phuket, Thailand, have mostly wrapped up. The rebuilding is starting there. Next comes marketing, to try to draw tourists back to the resorts on the Indian Ocean.
In Sri Lanka, there is a timetable to withdraw U.S. forces and transfer responsibilities to the United Nations and the World Food Program in a week to 10 days, if certain conditions are met.
The U.S. military assisted Sri Lanka by flying in relief supplies, clearing debris in Galle and Koggala, and assisting with medical care at the Point Pedro Medical Teaching Hospital in Jaffna and at displacement camps.
There is no timetable for withdrawal yet for Indonesia, which was hit hardest by the earthquake off Sumatra. But even there, there are signs the United Nations is starting to take over and may soon be able to supply remote regions of Sumatra without military assistance.
At the Banda Aceh airport this week, trucks unloaded a large U.N. cargo jet and U.N. helicopters were beginning to fly missions. In western Sumatra, the U.N. has brought in two landing craft capable of going around broken bridges and roads by sea and bringing in up to 40 tons of supplies each, Krieg said.
"Our best helicopters can only carry up to 5 tons," he said. "Every day that goes on, the need for (U.S. military) helicopters is less and less."
At the airport, there appears to be good coordination and cooperation between the civilian relief agencies and the different militaries on the ground.
"Look over there," Tech Sgt. Herbert Respicio, a former Maui resident who is with the ground crew at the Banda Aceh airport, said on Monday. "You have the British and French unloading an Australian plane. I think that's awesome."
It's estimated that nearly 400,000 people were displaced by the disaster in Indonesia.
By the numbers, about 11,442 service members are still participating in Operation Unified Assistance. The U.S. relief effort has delivered more than 6.6 million pounds of relief supplies to affected areas.
But Krieg said the numbers aren't what matter.
"The biggest thing we did was that we helped our neighbors when they were in need," he said.
NAGAPPATINAM, India » A little boy stands barefoot in the dirt. He doesn't know how old he is. No one issued a birth certificate or wrote down the date when he arrived in this world; such details are not recorded in the fishing villages along this southern coast of India.
His mother died in last month's tsunami. Then his father brought him to this temporary orphanage in a house behind the Mount Zion church on the busy Nagore-Nagappatinam Road. The boy, Kumar, like many in this country, has only one name.
There are many things Kumar doesn't know; among them is how long he has been at this place, and where his father has gone. "He doesn't come to visit," says the child, who looks about 6, and speaks in a small, soft voice. "He promised to come back and get me."
His father might never come. Since Dec. 26 -- when a monstrous tsunami devastated the coastline and claimed nearly 11,000 Indian lives, more than half here in the state of Tamil Nadu -- an unknown number of motherless children have been surrendered to orphanages like this one by overwhelmed fathers who've lost their wives and their boats and have no way to make a living.
Children who've lost both parents have also been handed over by aunts and uncles or distant relatives who say they are too poor to take on another mouth to feed. It is especially hard for girls, who are seen as less valuable, and carry the additional burden of needing a sizable dowry before marriage, which is about the only future they can really hope for.
There are 99 children crammed into this small house donated for now by the church next door. Nearly half have lost both parents. It is a temporary measure. If no one claims these youngsters, who range from toddlers to fifth-graders, they will be permanently placed in a government-run facility, separated by age and sex.
"Even if their relatives had the money to care for them, they don't wish it," says the warden, P. Rajeswari. "The families may have up to eight children of their own. Taking these children would be too much."
Still, the relatives have not taken the final step of signing away their familial rights, which would allow the children to be put up for adoption. The government has awarded 100,000 rupees (about $2,300) per dead parent to each child, collectible on their 18th birthday. To poor and often illiterate fishing families here, this is a great deal of money, and a possible incentive for not cutting ties to these children.
Ramakrishmen is 10. His uncle brought him here with his 9-year-old brother, Jairam. The boys lost both parents, their grandmother, and two sisters in the tsunami. The uncle has kept their 15-year-old brother, and placed their 13-year-old sister in another orphanage.
"My house was on the seashore and it was completely destroyed," says Ramakrishmen, who stands with his arm firmly around the shoulders of his best friend from their nearby fishing village. His little brother silently watches and says not a word.
Ramakrishmen says he doesn't understand why he is here. Sometimes, his uncle comes to visit. "He tells us to stay here and study and become a responsible person," the boy says solemnly. His brother nods, as if to confirm this is true.
Asked if they would like to be adopted by another family, the brothers shake their heads in unison. "No. No. No," they chorus.
Then Ramakrishmen is asked if he thinks his uncle will come for him anytime soon.
"No," he replies. "He tells me to stay here and study."