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The Aftermath of the Tsunami
Photo by Reed Hutchinson UCLA Photographic Services

The Aftermath of the Tsunami

Campus responds to crisis

"It is precisely at times like this that human rights concerns cannot be set aside because the dangers are so great," Geoffrey Robinson


By Ajay Singh
UCLA Today Staff. This article first appeared in the UCLA Today.

UCLA alumnus Eugene Kim and his wife, Faye Wachs, were scuba diving in Thailand when the Indian Ocean tsunami sucked them 130 feet under the dark, swirling waters. Somehow, the Santa Monica couple survived and went on to help injured victims on the devastated Thai island where they were vacationing.

"It was one of the few times in your life when you're absolutely dependent on the forces of nature," said Kim, a transportation consultant, recounting the ordeal Jan. 13 at the School of Public Affairs, where he earned a Ph.D. in urban planning in 2000. "It was like a bomb going off, and we somehow survived it. It's very hard to understand."

The tsunami has been described as the first ever natural disaster on a global scale, given its international death toll. Yet what made it truly horrific was the utter lack of disaster preparedness in the worst hit areas, Geoff Robinson, associate professor of Southeast Asian history, noted at another Jan. 13 campus symposium, "The Tsunami and Its Aftermath: Aid, Economics, Politics and Culture," organized by the International Institute.
Helicoptors land on a debris-strewn beach.

The Indonesian province of Aceh had no humanitarian networks, logistics or infrastructure, and had been closed to journalists because the Indonesian military has been conducting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against separatist rebels there, Robinson said. As a result, while horrific reports of the tsunami poured in from tourist rich Thailand and Sri Lanka, precious little was initially known about Aceh's devastation, even though two thirds of the 110,229 deaths reported there were of women and children.

"The United States has stood by and supported the [Indonesian] military as it has committed some of the most egregious violations of human rights," said Robinson, adding that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently remarked that those concerns ought to be set aside to allow Indonesian troops to help Aceh's victims.

"It is precisely at times like this that human rights concerns cannot be set aside because the dangers are so great," Robinson added, explaining that the Indonesian military has curtailed the movement of foreign relief groups in Aceh, ostensibly to continue its crackdown on rebels.

"Predictably now there is also talk of restoring U.S. Indonesian military ties," which had been cut off after the Indonesian military had been found to be killing civilians in East Timor in 1999. Humanitarian relief alone is insufficient to heal Aceh's wounds, Robinson said, because "if the problem is man made, solutions, too, must be political."

The symposium was the first of a series of forums that the International Institute, with the Asia Institute taking the lead, plans to present in the aftermath of this global disaster. A Web site has also been launched to help the UCLA community understand the short and long term impacts of the disaster. Visit it at www.international.ucla.edu/tsunami.

Among the most pressing concerns for survivors, especially children, is the state of their mental health, which almost always takes a back seat to relief efforts, said Alina Dorian of the School of Public Health. One way to reduce mental stress in children is to get them back into school, normalizing their routine, but "unfortunately in some places teachers were killed," according to Alan Steinberg, associate director of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA.
While funds have been pouring into relief agencies, many felt the need to do something else. The UCLA Medical Center's Spiritual Care Department held a memorial service in remembrance of the tsunami's victims on Jan. 14 in the NPH Auditorium.

"We've all been bombarded by the images of devastation and destruction," said the Rev. Sandra Yarlott, director of the department. "To see all these deaths "it's just difficult to comprehend. It's important to have a time to take all this into a healing space."