/ 30 December 2004

Tsunami survivors slam SA officials

Tsunami survivors slammed government officials and singled out the South African ambassador in Thailand on radio and the press for their handling of the tsunami crisis. A Pretoria newspaper quoted survivors accusing South African officials in Thailand of incompetence.

A Durban businessman who, together with his family, survived ordeal said on 702 radio on Thursday that he was “absolutely floored” when he phoned the South African embassy in Thailand during the crisis and was greeted with a recorded message.

Pretoria News quotes Michelle Stanton, who was on the island of Phi Phi when the wave hit, as saying: “After getting back to the main island our group quickly realised that the South African Government was non-existent. The few officials standing around even admitted that they were incompetent, saying they had no staff because of ‘internal politics’.”

“The people at the South African embassy told us that ‘whatever you say to a South African goes in one ear and out the other’. There was no communication between the officials and they could not make any decisions.”

Stanton told the newspaper that were it not for the Jewish Board of Deputies, Netcare and Discovery “we would still have been stuck on that island wandering about, but now the government is taking all the credit”.

Marvin Hennessey was another survivor who made it back safely to South Africa. He too was upset about the situation in Thailand.

“All the countries were setting up tables where officials were offering their citizens help. At the South African table there were no officials. Some of the victims had to help out. I even had the South African ambassador come and ask me things that she should have known,” he was quoted in the paper as saying.

“One official was complaining that her holiday with her family in Durban was cut short because she had to fly to Thailand and assist the victims,” said Hennessey in the Pretoria News.

Foreign affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said on Thursday that he had taken note of the concerns surrounding certain officials and that they would look into the specific issues raised. He emphasised that the priority at the moment was to help South Africans that are still stranded. He said the South African government is “raring to go” to help and provide assistance to South Africans still stranded overseas in the affected areas.

“We are doing everything that we can under very difficult circumstances,” he said on 702 radio.

Mamoepa said government officials had been called from leave and holiday to help with the situation, but admitted that mistakes do happen.

The South African government was involved in organising a mercy 747 boeing together with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Discovery Health and Netcare that flew to Phuket in Thailand early on Tuesday. The flight brought home 69 South Africans from Thailand on Wednesday.

On late Wednesday afternoon, tsunami survivors sobbed and broke down when they met their families at Johannesburg International after arriving on the mercy flight — and praised two young South Africans who coordinated the rescue effort.

The bodies of the four dead South Africans were aboard the flight. According to the SAJBD, they were identified as Morris Isaacson, Roy Fitzsimmons, Daphne Coetzee and Dolores Ribeira.

The men coordinating the rescue effort, Daniel Treisman (23) and Gavin Pearl (25), are both members of the SAJBD who were holidaying on Phi Phi island when disaster struck.

They went to every hospital bed and every morgue on Krabi and Phuket islands to trace South Africans. They also set up an SMS campaign to ensure South Africans went to the airport in Phuket for the rescue flight.

The two, looking shell-shocked and exhausted, were modest about their efforts.

“We were asked to do a job and we just went ahead and did it,” said Pearl.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad told reporters that more flights could be sent to Thailand if the disaster management committee deems it necessary.

Six severely injured South Africans are still in a Bangkok private hospital, it was confirmed on Wednesday.

Among them is Gaby Baron, girlfriend of Paul Sender, one of the South African tourists still missing in Thailand.

Initially feared dead, Baron is actually “alive and well” in Bangkok, said SAJBD Gauteng chairperson Zev Krengel. Also safe in Bangkok are Gary and Ilana Sweidan, he said.

They were among three South African men and three women airlifted out of Thailand by an International SOS air ambulance on Monday, said its regional general manager, Dr Ian Cornish.

Teams on the ground in Phuket are continuing their search for the rest of the missing South Africans — thought to include Avadya Berman and Nicki Liebovitz.

However, time is against them, with a mass cremation of the dead scheduled for Saturday amid fears of the increasing threat of disease with no space left for bodies in mortuaries.

DA concerned about survivors’ claims

South Africa’s official opposition Democratic Alliance says it is concerned about claims that the country’s Embassy in Thailand was closed while survivors of this week’s killer tsunami needed help.

“Allegations are now being made by survivors that the South African Embassy remained closed until Tuesday with just an answering machine to take calls,” the DA’s spokesperson Douglas Gibson said on Thursday.

In response, the Department of Foreign Affairs said South Africa’s ambassador in Thailand, Buyi Pheto, had been on hand to help survivors.

“Our official records, which may not be accessible to the uninitiated, indicate that Ambassador Pheto and her team of consular officers arrived in Phuket on Monday to render assistance to South Africans, including co-ordination of the evacuation operation,” Mamoepa said.

Gibson commended the foreign affairs department in Pretoria, saying he had formed a good impression of their efforts in South Africa.

“Everything which could be done in Pretoria seemed to me to be done,” he said.

Gibson said, however, that if the South African mission in Thailand did not do all it could to help South Africans stranded in Thailand, a “top-level enquiry” should determine whether Pheto and the embassy staff were competent.

Fourteen South Africans missing

Fourteen South Africans are missing in Thailand and two in India following this week’s killer tsunamis, said foreign affairs.

“According to our ambassador in Thailand, Buyi Pheto, there are officially 14 people missing,” said Mamoepa.

He said another two South Africans were still unaccounted for in India.

The department of home affairs had asked families of the missing people to provide them with photographs to publish in Thailand, Mamoepa said.

He also asked families who had heard from relatives they had listed as missing to inform the foreign affairs department.

“We appeal to families who may have made contact to advise us so that we can remove them from the list of missing persons.”

Mamoepa said the government was calling on organisations to help with relief efforts in South Asia.

“The government is making an appeal for relief organisations to come to the fore in a joint partnership with government in responding to the emergency call for relief by the Sri Lankan, Maldives and Indonesian governments.”

Tsunami causes scare at Coffee Bay

The Asian tsunami almost caused 34 swimmers to drown at Coffee Bay in the Eastern Cape, says the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality.

Municipal spokesperson Sonwabo Mampoza said the earthquake had had a negative impact on the beaches as the sea was unusual with high waves.

Mampoza said the swimmers were saved from drowning and no death was reported in the area.

The municipality employed 24 life savers for the festive season to ensure “our beaches and dams are kept safe”.

Tsunami toll nears 120 000

As the official death toll from Sunday’s devastating earthquake in the Indian Ocean climbed to 119 747, panic added to the misery of survivors today with warnings reported of fresh tsunamis in India and Sri Lanka.

The overall toll was revised dramatically upwards after the Indonesian health ministry raised its official figure by nearly 30 000 to 79 940. The counting was far from complete, officials added.

In Sri Lanka, people climbed onto the roofs of their houses while others fled from the coastline after authorities used fire engines equipped with loudspeakers to urge residents to move to higher ground. The country’s military urged people to be alert, but not to panic, while an earthquake expert said the aftershocks were probably not strong enough to produce tsunamis.

But with neighbouring India ordering an evacuation of coastal areas, instructions that were heard on radios in Sri Lanka, some people did panic.

“There is total confusion here,” said Rohan Bandara, a resident of the coastal town of Tangelle. “The aim of all the people is not to see the waves again, so they are leaving.”

Cars, vans and motorbikes jammed roads leading away from coastlines. Some people hauled their most valuable possessions stuffed into plastic bags.

“Some people whose houses weren’t so badly affected by Sunday’s tsunami are also now running toward welfare centres,” said Suresh Devaraj, of Trincomalee, another coastal town.

India denied having issued a fresh warning but said it had urged people to take precautions after information that several aftershocks in the region had pushed up the water level. An estimated 5.7 magnitude underwater earthquake was recorded at 5.18am local time (2118 GMT yesterday) off the coast of Sumatra. Other tremors were felt in Thailand and Burma.

As aid agencies struggled to cope with the scale of the disaster, the World Health Organisation warned that the next few days would be critical in controlling any potential outbreak of waterborne diseases.

The incidence of diarrhoea is increasing, but is no more than expected at this stage of a natural disaster, said the WHO’s head of crisis operations, Dr David Nabarro.

“We remain really concerned about the situation,” he said, adding that it is becoming clearer whether medical supplies are matching the needs of the affected areas.

The UN is particularly concerned about the situation in Indonesia’s Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. The area closest to the epicentre, Aceh bore the brunt of both Sunday’s earthquake and the subsequent tsunamis.

With at least 5-million people in need, the relief effort is already one of the biggest humanitarian exercises in history. Sixty countries having pledged over $220-million in cash and hundreds of millions more in emergency supplies.

Hundreds of tonnes of medical supplies have been flown to the wider region, but the UN admits only a fraction of the aid has got to where it is needed.

“We are doing very little at the moment,” said Jan Egeland, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator. “It will take maybe 48 to 72 hours more to be able to respond to the tens of thousands of people who would like to have assistance today – or Wednesday, rather.

“I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks ahead,” he added.

Aid workers arriving in the region are encountering devastation – entire towns and villages razed, and countless people – some of them with cuts and broken bones – searching desperately for clean water and food on streets covered in debris and dead bodies.

Some survivors have not eaten since Sunday and now risk infections and diseases such as elephantiasis, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, malaria, meningitis and haemorrhagic fever.

Singapore has proposed that countries affected by the tsunami should meet within days to develop a strategy to cope with the devastation.


The Indonesian government estimate the country’s death toll at 79 940, with officials warning that the body count is far from complete. Unicef said that close to a million Indonesian children were in need.

Military helicopter pilots struggled to drop food into isolated villages surrounded by cliffs along the coast of Sumatra, as shortages and the fear of disease spread.

Unicef also estimated that 60% of Banda Aceh, the capital of the devastated Aceh province, was destroyed, with severe damage stretching across its 155-mile coastline. Government institutions have stopped functioning and basic supplies have almost run out, forcing even ambulances to ration fuel.

Countless bloated bodies, many of them young children, remained strewn on the streets and floating in the rivers of Banda Aceh under a tropical sun. Truckloads of bodies were delivered to freshly-dug mass graves, while others were simply swept up into the mountains of debris that clogged the narrow streets.

“Everything here has collapsed,” said Brig Gen Achmad Hiayat, surgeon general of Indonesia’s armed forces. “Even the government has collapsed. The hospitals, medical services are in disarray.”

Sri Lanka

Amid the panic generated by today’s tsunami warning, government officials in Colombia said the country’s death toll had risen above 24 000. “There are 24 297 dead and 4 589 missing,” Alam Meer, deputy director of the social welfare ministry, which is coordinating relief efforts, told Reuters.

With some areas still to be contacted and scores of bodies being washed up on beaches along the south coast, the toll would rise further, he warned.


The Indian government said today that 13 230 people were dead or feared dead across the country. In a statement, it said 7 330 were confirmed dead and another 5 900 were missing and presumed dead. All the presumed dead are in the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, where rescuers have yet to reach isolated areas.

Ram Kapse, the administrator of the islands, said there may be as many as 10 000 missing. Only about 359 bodies have been found so far, he added. “There’s not a single hut which is standing,” said Mohammad Yusef, a 60-year-old fisherman from Tea Top village on Car Nicobar, where about 800 survivors from around the islands have taken refuge in a local church.

Yusef said there were about 15 small villages on Car Nicobar’s coastline and that all had been destroyed. “Everything is gone. Most of the people have gone up to the hills and are afraid to come down,” he said.

The Andaman and Nicobar territories are comprised of more than 500 islands south-east of India’s mainland. About 350 000 people live on about 30 of the islands.


The country’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, said today that he feared Thailand’s death toll would rise to at least 7 000.

“There are many people listed as missing and we think that 80% of them are feared dead, 20% may have lost contact,” he told reporters.

Officials say more than 6 000 Thais and foreigners as missing, while 1 975 are confirmed to have perished.

As Thaksin spoke, rescue and forensic teams from Australia, Japan, Germany, Israel and other countries fanned out across areas of southern Thailand, racing against time to find survivors and identify rapidly decomposing bodies.

Nationals of more than 40 countries were on holiday in six provinces of southern Thailand when disaster struck. They include some 1 500 Swedes, 200 Finns, 200 Danes and hundreds of Norwegians, according to reports from Scandinavian capitals.

“We have to have hope that we’ll find somebody,” said Ulf Langemeier, the leader of 15 German veterans of earthquake disasters who were using sniffer dogs to comb a wrecked resort with under huge floodlights early today.

Mr Langemeier said there was always a chance of finding survivors trapped under rubble when earthquakes strike on land, but “when waves enter a building you have no chance”. – agencies, staff reporters, Guardian Unlimited Â