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How many really died in the tsunami?

Chris Brummitt

One year later, officials still aren't exactly sure how many people died in the Indian Ocean tsunami, but a tally of conservative government figures puts the number of dead and missing at more than 216 000 in 11 countries. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, different agencies within the same governments disagree about the numbers.

One year later, officials still aren’t exactly sure how many people died in the Indian Ocean tsunami, but a tally of conservative government figures puts the number of dead and missing at more than 216 000 in 11 countries.

In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, different agencies within the same governments disagree about the numbers. Thailand has lost track of how many people previously listed as missing have now been accounted for.

The confusion is partly a result of the tragedy’s scale—the massive earthquake that struck off the Sumatran coast on December 26 killed an untold number in Indonesia’s Aceh province even before the giant waves it spawned crashed into the coastlines of a dozen countries.

Tens of thousands of bodies were washed out to sea, local government offices were destroyed and personal records lost. In some places, census details that formed the basis of missing persons lists are hopelessly out of date.

Poor coordination among agencies that responded to the disaster is also a factor, as is a lack of manpower.

Data collected by The Associated Press from government agencies in the 11 countries that reported deaths show the number of confirmed deaths at between 177 422 and 179 262. Another 34 749 to 50 156 are listed as missing, and most of those are presumed to be dead.

The Indonesian Red Cross—considered the more reliable by international aid agencies—lists 131 338 dead and 25 016 missing in Aceh, which suffered the most.

Workers who cross-checked data with survivors have lowered the number of missing by about 5 000 in recent months after discovering that many people had been counted twice.

But Aceh’s government lists 129 498 as dead and 37 606 as missing, said spokesperson Teuku Pribadi.

He was not concerned by the discrepancy.

“It is up to you which one to use,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s government-appointed tsunami task force says 31 229 people died and 4 093 are missing—figures that have not changed in six months.

But the interior ministry lists the number of persons dead or presumed dead at 38 800—more than 3 000 more than the task force’s total.

Each agency is sticking by its figures, compiled separately and in different ways.

In India, where record keeping is considered more efficient, 10 749 are listed as killed and 5 640 missing, presumed dead.

Thailand, where accuracy was complicated by a high number of tourists who left the area quickly after the disaster and where thousands of largely undocumented Burmese labourers worked, has confirmed 5 395 deaths.

Thailand’s government said in September that 2 817 people were missing. But the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Centre said this figure was not reliable because no one had checked to see people earlier listed as missing—including foreign holidaymakers—have since been found. The centre is not keeping its own count.

One pressing question is when to declare the missing dead—a legal step that would allow survivors to lodge insurance and government compensation claims.

Pribadi, the Aceh government spokesperson, said he thought all missing government workers would be declared dead 12 months after the tsunami struck and surviving relatives would receive a pension.

But Social Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab said any such declaration would be made “early next year”.

“It is a tricky thing,” said Purnomo Sidik, the ministry’s national-disaster director. “What happens if someone shows up again?”—Sapa-AP

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