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Indian Ocean Tragedy Becomes Global Disaster

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The countries of Asia are no strangers to disaster, but Sunday's earthquake and tsunamis are beyond modern human experience. This is the first natural disaster in centuries to span two continents and an ocean, bringing tragedy to 11 countries and embroiling so many foreigners. VOA's Kate Pound Dawson in our Asia News Center in Hong Kong looks at how the life in Asia has been rocked with the violence of a tectonic clash.

Earthquakes, typhoons and cyclones, volcanoes, sinking ships, terrorist attacks, drought, war. The countries of Southeast and South Asia know them all. Throughout the past decades the people of the region have suffered in disasters, natural and manmade.

Yet nothing prepared them for this. From India, where a boy cries as he scrambles to find his missing family, to Indonesia's Aceh province where a woman mourns her dead husband and children, the countries that surround the Indian Ocean lie stunned and heartsick.

A magnitude nine earthquake on Sunday near Indonesia's northern Sumatra Island triggered a series of giant waves that swept all the way to Africa, killing tens of thousands of people in their path.

It was a quake that literally rocked the world - geologists say the planet actually wobbled on its axis. And it has become the first global disaster, with victims from five continents.

A normally quarrelsome world has been stunned into mounting the biggest relief effort ever seen. Indeed, the scope of the tragedy has forced enemies in two countries to lay down, at least temporarily, their arms.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tiger rebels and the government they fight are both racing to feed and shelter the survivors. Indonesia's government and the rebels in Aceh province also are holding their fire. Aceh took the brunt of both the quake and the first tsunamis, and the death toll there may top 50,000.

Wiryono Sastrohandoyo is a former Indonesian diplomat who led government efforts to negotiate an end to nearly three decades of fighting in Aceh.

"They go into some kind of cease-fire, not attacking each other. I think it is, well, driven by the fact the place is entirely devastated and there is no point in fighting anymore, for the time being at least," he said.

Instead of fighting, countries are reaching out to help each other. European governments that in the past two years have had found little common ground with Washington's foreign policy, are now joining with the United States to rush relief aid to the Indian Ocean nations.

Western tourists who found their tropical paradise vacations turned into sweltering nightmares tell of local innkeepers, police and doctors tending to them graciously, even though their own communities had been destroyed.

The quake not only devastated lives, it may have changed geography. Hundreds of small islands in the Indian Ocean may have moved as much as 20 meters once the quake subsided.

For countries such as the Maldives, made up of hundreds of tiny islands that reach no more than a meter or so above sea level, the tsunami has brought to life a national nightmare. For years, such island groups have feared being inundated as global warming slowly raises ocean levels.

But in a matter of moments on Sunday, the islands were swamped, and some disappeared entirely under the water. It is possible that a few of the islands were swept away completely, and now are no more than sandbars.

Acehnese woman tries to identify her missing relatives among bodies of victims
For the survivors of this disaster, there is the daunting task of rebuilding their lives and homes. Across the Indian Ocean, parents are finding they suddenly have no children, children learn that their parents are lost, husbands mourn wives they could not save, and wives search for the bodies of husbands who had gone off to work that morning.

One volunteer helping survivors on the Thai island of Phuket told a television reporter that some of the worst wounds are invisible.

"People feel guilty, on top of everything else, they feel guilty that they survived this," the volunteer said. "They're not taking care of themselves and they don't care. They only care about the person that is missing."

Aid experts say it could take a decade to rebuild the lost homes and businesses. Island governments will learn to adapt to their changed shorelines and fortunes. Probably, says Ambassador Wirayono in Indonesia, governments will again take up arms against separatists. But in many ways, nothing in the Indian Ocean will quite be the same again.

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