"A cause no one can argue with"

As promises of aid for tsunami victims reach $2 billion, nations turn to the daunting task of delivering timely relief.

By Brian Whitaker

Published January 3, 2005 3:36PM (EST)

With promises of aid in the tsunami disaster touching $2 billion, relief workers focused Sunday on how to get help to those who most need it. About 1.8 million survivors, mainly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, are in need of food, the United Nations said. Help is likely to reach those in Sri Lanka within three days, but an estimated 1 million Indonesians may have to wait much longer, officials warned.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is expected to arrive in Indonesia on Thursday to coordinate efforts at an international donors' conference that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Japanese and Australian prime ministers will also attend.

Although bickering over the leadership of relief operations has subsided a little, with U.N. officials now praising Americans for their help, Annan disclosed Sunday that he had not spoken to President Bush since the disaster. "I've spoken to other leaders around the world, including the Chinese, and they all want to accept the U.N. leadership and they want to work with us," he said in an interview with ABC television. On Saturday, Bush said in a radio broadcast that the U.S. was "leading an international coalition" to help with relief and reconstruction.

In the space of a week the U.N. has received promises of money from more than 45 countries -- as well as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the E.U. -- which amount to more than the total pledged for all other humanitarian appeals in 2004 combined, Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, told journalists. "The world is really coming together here in a way that we probably have never seen before."

Japan heads the donor list with a promise of $500 million. The U.S. has promised $350 million, the World Bank $250 million, Britain $95 million and Sweden $75.5 million. Egeland said food and medicines that had begun arriving in large quantities were running into logistical problems such as overloaded airports. Practical help in overcoming these could be as important as money, he said. "The military and civil defense assets that many countries are providing us are as valuable as cash or gold would be today because it makes us move with the assistance and it makes us get there in the race against the clock."

The "very concrete assistance" that is needed includes helicopter carriers for use off the coasts to prevent clogging of inland airstrips and air-traffic-control units to make small, damaged airstrips usable in the relief effort. France said Sunday that it will send the helicopter carrier Jeanne d'Arc and the frigate Georges Leygues to the area Monday. The warships will have medical teams, an operating theater and five helicopters.

Germany is sending 100 soldiers to Indonesia to set up a center that will treat injured survivors and provide vaccinations. American and Australian military helicopters are already at work in Sumatra delivering parcels of aid to the cut-off west coast.

"We are relying on the helicopter system because that is the only way we can reach the most remote areas," Michael Elmquist, head of the U.N. disaster relief operation in Indonesia, said. "It is going to take a couple of weeks before a road network is restored so trucks can reach those areas. I can't exclude the possibility that there are places that will not receive assistance for a couple of weeks," he told Reuters.

In the U.S., on President Bush's orders, flags will fly at half-mast from Monday until Friday, one of several signs that the administration is embarking on a big commitment.

The political benefits, some Americans argue, could be enormous. "It represents an opportunity to try to move beyond the frustration of Iraq ... and his tensions with the Islamic world," John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale University, told the New York Times over the weekend. "It is an example of an area where the U.S., with its financial resources and its logistical capability, can work in a cause that no one can argue with."

Brian Whitaker

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