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Enormous problems still persist for tsunami relief operations in Indonesia - UN

6 January 2005 While relief operations after last week's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami are making "phenomenal progress" in areas that can be reached, "enormous problems" still persist in Indonesia, the top United Nations emergency coordinator said today.

"We are doing an enormous job already, we already have hundreds of people working," Under-Secretary-General Jan Egeland told a news briefing in New York of the overall UN role as coordinator of the massive international relief effort. "But we need to build up more, and we can and we will build up more, and dramatically so in the next few days."

Speaking on the same day that Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched a flash appeal for nearly $1 billion, Mr. Egeland also said local and national authorities must clamp down on the as yet few cases of "totally horrendous attempts" to traffic in child survivors of the disaster to prevent it becoming a "big problem."

Turning to the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and Sumatra, the region most ravaged by the tsunami, he said: "Big progress is being made by the day, we are reaching many more people today than we did yesterday, we are reaching them also with many more services in terms of water, food, shelter, health care. But we are having enormous problems still, and these problems will remain. This is the road-less, this is the communications-less part of the areas affected."

The remoteness and lack or destruction of infrastructure has impeded speedy access there to the relief operations that moved into top gear in other devastated zones of the dozen countries affected, such as Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, the Maldives and Somalia. There, either the national authorities or the international community made "phenomenal progress" in covering the basic needs of the millions of victims, he said.

Regarding the toll in Aceh and Sumatra, he said he did not think "we are even close to having any figures of how many people died, how many people are missing and how many people are severely affected."

Estimates of the tsunami's overall toll put the death toll at 150,000 and climbing, with nearly 100,000 of them so far in Indonesia. More than half a million people are believed to have been injured and up to 5 millions are classified as lacking basic services.

Mr. Egeland also stressed the overall psychological trauma left by the devastation which will be less easy to heal that the immediate relief needs.

"We will, except for Sumatra and Aceh, be able soon to reach nearly all with the blanket and the tent and the food and the water and the sanitation that they so desperately need," he said. "What we will not have done is to heal the mental scars. I've seen so many times that there is some kind of complacency that we believe that if they get the life-saving assistance we have sort of solved the job. We are not even close to solving the job at that point.

"These people have lost everything. They've lost their children, they've lost their spouses, they've lost their local community, they've lost their house, they've lost their school, they've lost their livelihood. It is when we have rebuilt that that we can be perhaps a little bit more relieved and think that we have done a job as we should complete our job," he added.

Asked about reports of child smugglers preying on the survivors for sex trafficking, Mr. Egeland said colleagues from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and others had already confirmed some few cases of "totally horrendous attempts to do trafficking in children.

"Of course it's not a big problem yet because it's so early on," he added. "It could become a big problem and we have to stop it now. So a lot is done now to monitor and survey and tell everybody national, local authorities that they have to be very vigilant and there are many orphans and there are very many vulnerable children, very many vulnerable women."

Mr. Egeland also reiterated his appeal to the global community not to forget the many other humanitarian crises in the world. "As the situation evolves, I'm getting increasingly satisfied with how the world is responding to the tsunami victims and I'm getting increasingly nervous for all the forgotten and neglected emergencies."

He said that perhaps the worst situation was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where, outside the tsunami area, most people now die "from neglect and lack of attention and lack of presence" of the international community.

"There are as many nameless victims in the eastern Congo and in Darfur in western Sudan in a year as there may be in the tsunami-stricken societies," he added. "And I hope the world will be equally compassionate with those defenceless victims."

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