Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton spent time with child survivors of Asia’s tsunami on Monday, getting clues to the emotional impact of the disaster after surveying the massive physical destruction it caused.
In the fishing town of Weligama on Sri Lanka’s battered southern coast, Clinton and Bush visited temporary houses built of cinderblocks and iron sheeting and sat with children who danced, sang and drew pictures of their experiences.
“Some of them are still drawing about the tsunami, and some of them are drawing life as they remember it and as they want it to be again,” Clinton said.
The two ex-leaders toured facilities built with U.S. government aid to house people whose homes were washed away in the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka. Earlier, they inspected water purification equipment in Koggala, another hard-hit southern town. The American delegation flew by helicopter from the capital, Colombo, to the south, traveling over coastlines still strewn with rubble and debris.
“We see the physical devastation. We see the adults struggling to rebuild their homes and start their businesses,” Clinton said in Weligama. “There was a lot of emotional damage here that’s not visible to the eye.”
Bush said: “You just can’t help but feel something in your heart about these children.”
The current president’s father praised U.S. troops involved in tsunami relief, though he said he understood there might be some apprehension about their presence. Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the two countries hardest hit by the tsunami, are both wracked by rebel conflicts and are sensitive to the presence of foreign troops.
“I’m very proud of what these guys did,” Bush said. “It’s a humanitarian mission that I think is well understood here.”
In Koggala, Clinton said he had shared fears of deadly disease outbreaks in the days following the disaster.
“I was absolutely convinced we would lose another hundred thousand people,” he told aid workers. “It’s nice to be wrong sometimes. It’s amazing that didn’t happen, a great tribute to all of you.”
The official tsunami death toll ranges from 170,088 to 178,118 — with most of the victims in Indonesia, but with Sri Lanka, Thailand and India also hit hard. Tens of thousands are missing, with most presumed dead.
On Sunday, the two former leaders visited the tsunami’s ground zero at Aceh province on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, where they described the destruction as unimaginable and promised survivors who begged for shelter that more help would come.
The U.S. president asked his father and Clinton to lead the U.S. effort to provide private aid to the tsunami victims. The pair began a tour of the tsunami zone in Thailand on Saturday and visited Aceh on Sunday before traveling to Sri Lanka. They were to fly to the Maldives later Monday.
A day before they arrived in Aceh, separatist rebels exchanged gunfire with Indonesian soldiers escorting an aid convoy, but no relief workers were injured, a spokeswoman for the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration said Monday. A spokesman for the rebels denied the gunbattle had taken place.