A diplomat's sobering trip
BANDA ACEH--As Secretary of State Colin Powell's helicopter flew over this ruined city last week, he saw only a few signs of life--and many more reminders of the shattering toll that the rampaging wall of water inflicted on this remote province. Near one of the few standing bridges lay a row of about a dozen rectangular orange and black tarps, covering corpses still baking in the tropical heat 10 days after the tsunami hit.
What was absent spoke just as loudly--whole neighborhoods, even entire villages, sliced cleanly from the earth as if by a giant knife. "There's 120 miles like that with nothing," said Cmdr. Mike Horan, the U.S. Navy pilot who flew Powell's helicopter. "It's all gone." The former general was awed by the sheer might of what had happened here. "The power of the wave to . . . destroy everything in its path is amazing," he said. "I cannot begin to imagine the horror."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who accompanied Powell and saw his share of destruction after Florida's violent hurricane season, let out a heavy sigh on the tarmac after the flight: "That was . . . oh, man." Powell, too, struggled to comprehend it all. "I've been in war. . . but I have never seen anything like this," he said.
In Sri Lanka, Powell's helicopter flight over the country's western coast revealed damage spottier than that in Aceh, but still astonishing given that this side of Sri Lanka had received only a blast that ricocheted off the eastern coast of India. Powell got much closer to the aftermath in Sri Lanka during a brief tour of the southern resort town of Galle, where 4,100 people died. Winding along the main coastal road, he passed piles of rubble that recently were stores, and the town's central bus station, now a gutted wreck of twisted metal and bus carcasses.
Perceptions. Powell's hastily arranged tour of the region was aimed at demonstrating U.S. concern for the victims and reversing a perception that Washington's initial response to the disaster was sluggish. Ironically, even with U.S. military helicopters performing the most visible aid deliveries in places like Indonesia, Powell found himself repeatedly challenged as to whether America's pledge of $350 million was enough. Indeed, several other nations continued to pledge higher and higher amounts of relief assistance in a game of diplomatic one-upmanship.
The stakes in this battle of perceptions are particularly important in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation. Fortunately for the Bush administration, the U.S. military's relief efforts have received extensive TV coverage. "It does give the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action," said Powell.
The trip became something of a farewell tour for Powell, who is planning to step down next week. But even amid the natural disaster, Powell had to contend with man-made complications to relief efforts from the civil wars simmering in Sri Lanka and Indonesia--the two worst-hit countries. U.S. Marine units being sent to Sri Lanka will not operate in the northern districts of the country, where the Tamil Tiger rebels are battling the government. In Indonesia, meanwhile, the only road for aid deliveries into the city of Banda Aceh was closed last week for eight hours after a firefight erupted between the Indonesian military and separatists.