The U.N.-led effort to aid tsunami victims is zeroing in on northwestern Sumatra, where up to a million people are still unaccounted for. Officials say they have only a sketchy picture of the scope of the devastation.
Twelve days after the tsunami struck, U.N. officials say they still do not know the fate of hundreds of thousands of coastal villagers in northwestern Sumatra.
Briefing reporters Thursday, emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland admitted that the massive global aid community is "not even close" to having figures of how many people died, how many are missing, and how many more may be living in improvised camps in Aceh, which bore the brunt of the tsunami's force.
"Hundreds of villages were razed, the people moved from the coast to inland," he said. "Along the coast, very few people remain, in the devastation, very few remain because so many were swept away, and the rest have fled. They've fled towards where there is water and there is water inland in forest and hills. There may be 200 improvised camps, and there could be hundreds of thousands people there. I've tried to get a definite figure of how many people lived on that coast, but it's hard to get, it could be a million."
The U.N. relief official expressed fear that his widely used earlier estimate of 150,000 dead from the tsunami could be far too low.
"It will be much bigger. When will anybody want to give that figure? I don't know," he said. "I don't think we will be prepared to give a new figure before some time, because it will very much depend on how we can reach the communities on Aceh Sumatra coast that are inland, and start to interview them, but if 20 percent or 30 percent or more of the population was swept away and killed, there are hundreds of thousands on the coastline. We could have very, very large figures, we don't know how big."
Mr. Egeland noted the announcement in Jakarta that the core group of aid donors led by the United States has been dissolved and integrated into the U.N.-led aid effort. But he said the core group would continue to provide the bulk of the aid delivery capability.
"We will still keep very close contact with those core group members because they're giving us the biggest assistance and have some of the biggest assets on the ground," he said. "Like the U.S., their military assets are the most important assets for big parts of our operation along the Aceh coast now."
Mr. Egeland said that except for Sumatra, aid workers will soon be able to provide blankets, tents, water, food and sanitation to almost all survivors in tsunami-hit areas. He admitted, however, that little can be done to heal the mental scars of those who have lost children, spouses, schools and livelihoods. In that respect, he said, we are not even close.