Clinton, Bush: Tsunami Aid Helping

It has been nearly two months since a tsunami devastated southern Asia killing more than 170,000 people and leaving a number of shattered cclountries struggling to rebuild.

Former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton traveled to Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka this weekend to tour the devastation and to promise survivors that more help is on the way.

A major concern has been that the aid would not reach those in need. But Clinton told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith from the Maldives there is no need to worry.

"Most of this money that's been given has been quite well spent," he said. "I'm sure that there was some loss of supplies and materials early on when there weren't good inventory systems and good distribution systems. But these countries are trying to set up accountability systems. People are working towards spending it right."

Bush agreed. Most of the aid, he pointed out has come from the U.S. Marines, U.S. Aid and public and private donors. The two men have been working to raise private funds in the U.S., to aid the tsunami victims.

"I think a lot of aid is reaching it, but that doesn't mean that more is not needed," Bush said. "You go to little towns like we've done and you'll see a lot of generosity and a lot of caring, and a lot of aid being received and the people are very, very grateful, not just to the United States, but to the world community."

And for those still apprehensive to donate, Bush pointed out supporting tourism is another way to help.

"There is a knowledge gap," he said. "In the Maldives there's great opportunity today for tourists to return."

Clinton added, "That's worth emphasizing. Three of these countries: Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. All these places are heavily dependent on tourism. A lot of the tourism facilities are open, but people think they must all be closed because of the tsunami. The more tourists come back and the more quickly they do, the less aid people will need here."

The tsunami, however, did not just cause massive physical destruction. The former presidents spent time with child survivors and getting clues to the emotional impact of the disaster.

"The best way to describe it," Bush explained, "We're sitting in a meeting with a whole bunch of kids. The teacher is trying to get them to unleash from their inner soul by writing and doing pictures and here's one, I forget the age of that kid, but it shows the mother drowning. It shows another drowning body, it shows trees all lined down. And it really is sad what's happening there, and that's what hit me the most: The heartbreaking news for the kids that have come out of all of this. But they're working hard to restore it.

"The teacher we saw was the most inspiring young woman who is determined to help these kids come back. It's that emotional side, and then in the meantime, they're all living in kind of makeshift tent-like buildings and they realize they'll need a lot of help to get them back into housing," he said.

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.

Clinton said, "A lot of them were about the tragedy. A lot of them were about the hope, so I think that's where we are. We have a mixed picture. We have terrible damage to children, to the communities and to lives."

What hit Clinton the most was the bravery kids displayed and resolve people showed in working towards rebuilding their communities.

"We think we ought to help," Clinton said. "And I think the American people can feel confident that if they do help, their money will go to a good cause and be well spent."

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 169,070 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.
  • Tatiana Morales

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