Thousands go hungry as a mere trickle of aid gets through

THE stench of raw sewage and rotting fruit seeps through the village of Paraleya on the coast road north of the town of Galle, one of the worst areas affected by the Boxing Day tsunami.

Here, the community is physically divided by the ghostly remains of the Spirit of the Sea, the express train in which more than 1,400 people perished as giant waves tore inland, ripping apart its huge diesel engines and the rails on which it was travelling.

Most on board the packed train, including more than 100 westerners, drowned as thick black water filled the carriages, trapping them inside.

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While the bodies have long been removed, passengers’ belongings - bashed suitcases, beach towels and the remains of Christmas wrapping paper - still litter the trackside.

In the nearby village school, the sound of hammering is the first sign that this community is attempting to get back on its feet, but exasperated Red Cross workers in the area expressed their outrage yesterday at the lack of aid getting through.

"This is one of the worst-hit areas along this coast and, although tents and medical supplies are starting to come in, the things these people desperately need, clean drinking water and rice, are slow to arrive," said Franois Tullier, a French medic. "We can continue to bathe and dress their wounds and help those released from hospital, but we cannot give them food and water. These things are running out and we urgently need more supplies to get through.

"These people need to know there are enough supplies to go around. They have enough to worry about getting over the psychological trauma of losing relatives and neighbours, never mind staying awake at night worrying about having enough drinking water the next day."

A disproportionate number of the victims in this country were children. A quarter of Sri Lanka’s population is under 15, but the government says that as many as half the tsunami’s estimated 30,893 victims so far are under ten. Of those who survived, thousands are registered as having been robbed of one parent and, by the time a complete roll call of the victims has been made, thousands more will have been found to have lost both.

Youngsters are also at risk from kidnappers. Yesterday, police said a 63-year-old Sri Lankan man was arrested on charges of attempting to sell his grandchildren after their home was destroyed and their mother killed in the tsunami.

The south of Sri Lanka is not the only area where the distribution of aid is a concern.

Doctors in Ampara district, whose three main villages lost 12,000 people and now contain 130,000 refugees, say they are in equally desperate need of relief. Fights have broken out in camps where too little food has arrived. Skin rashes and lesions are increasingly commonplace - tell-tale signs, say doctors, that conditions are far from hygienic.

Ampara, where a third of Sri Lanka’s casualties died, is undeniably the worst-hit spot in the country. Although more than 700 tonnes of aid is reaching Sri Lanka every day, little has arrived on the east coast.

"Ampara’s problems appear to stem from freak weather, poor roads and being served by a short runway on the nearby military base, which can only handle light aircraft and helicopters," said Ted Chaiban of UNICEF. "The result is that, instead of flooding the disaster-hit areas with foodstuffs, drugs and clean water, the international relief agencies have managed only a trickle of goods."

Although there are some signs of aid reaching the east coast, in the form of vehicles emblazoned with charities’ logos, there appears no concerted large-scale effort to rehouse and feed people. "When we get lorries, then there is enough food. When we do not, then people are going hungry," said Mohammed Masjid, who runs a refugee camp at Azhar Vidalaya school and has to feed 1,400 people every day.

It is clear that, across Sri Lanka, the humanitarian effort is slowly falling into place and work has started on rebuilding and repairing infrastructure.

But, judging by the evidence available yesterday, thousands of those most in need remain in as vulnerable a position as ever.

TROOPS 'MUST LEAVE ACEH BY MARCH'

FOREIGN troops helping with aid relief efforts in Indonesia’s devastated Aceh province should leave by the end of March, the vice president, Jusuf Kalla, said yesterday.

Foreign aid workers and journalists in Indonesia could also be expelled if they do not report their movements outside tsunami-battered Aceh’s provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

The comments followed sporadic shootings, amid a huge international relief effort in Aceh, that the military has blamed on separatist rebels though it has provided no evidence to back up those claims. No aid workers have been injured in the gunfire.

Forces from Australia, the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, China, Spain, Pakistan, Japan and Switzerland have scrambled to help with relief efforts in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra.

More than 106,500 people were killed in Indonesia by the huge earthquake and ensuing tsunami, with almost all those deaths occurring in Aceh. Around the Indian Ocean the death toll from the disaster stands at more than 158,000.

"Three months are enough. The sooner [they leave] the better," said Mr Kalla when asked how long foreign troops should stay in Aceh.

Asked about long-term relief efforts, he said: "We don’t need foreign troops."