Balts rally to alleviate Asian tsunami disaster

  • 2005-01-06
  • By Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Three Estonians and one Latvian remain missing as a result of the devastating tsunami caused by an earthquake in southeastern Asia on Dec. 26, while all three Baltic countries have joined the global community in gathering financial support and carrying out relief operations.

The Estonian Foreign Affairs Ministry said it had received information about the 327 Estonians who were in the region affected by the disaster. According to the ministry, all of the tourists were contacted except for one female and two male Estonians who had been in Thailand and are now considered missing.

By the evening of Jan. 4, three Latvian residents were still considered missing. Previously the number had been four, but the Foreign Ministry said earlier that day that one individual had been found and had left Sri Lanka.

Two of the three missing Estonians are reportedly diving enthusiasts. Anneli Kimber, spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said that as of Jan. 4 the ministry did not have any news on the three Estonians missing in Phuket, Thailand.

"The ministry has given the information and the photos of the missing persons to the Interpol, the Rescue Department, the Thailand authorities and the Red Cross as well as to EU institutions dealing with the relief operations," said Kimber.

Estonia's direct presence in the troubled region is limited to the honorary consul in Bangkok; the rest of the work goes through the embassies of other EU states, mostly Finland and Sweden, and the crisis relief centers of other countries' Foreign Affairs ministries, Kimber said.

When the tragedy occurred, most of the Estonian tourists in the region - 208 people - were in Thailand, with 39 in India and 38 in Sri Lanka. In addition, 22 Estonians were in Malaysia, 12 on the Maldives and eight in Indonesia.

According to the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, all 150 citizens in the region had been contacted by the consular department officials and confirmed safe.

Latvia's Foreign Ministry stated that, out of its 228 tourists who were in the earthquake region, 225 are safe and most of them have already returned home. Latvian businessman Vladimirs Kulesovs, who is so far the only resident of the Baltics who was injured in the tragedy, broke his leg in the tsunami disaster and had to have one finger amputated.

Immediately after receiving news of the disaster, Foreign Ministry officials in Estonia had to begin their search for Estonians in southeastern Asia from scratch. "Unfortunately no one from among the Estonian tourists who went there for Christmas used the opportunity to register themselves with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," Kimber explained.

However, information was eventually gathered in cooperation with local travel agencies and tourists' relatives and friends who called the hot lines opened by the ministry.

The disaster showed that the Estonian consular service can act promptly only if travelers register upon arrival in a foreign country with the consular service or the nearest Estonian Embassy, added Kimber.

Meanwhile, many Balts responded by donating money to the tsunami victims.

The Latvian Red Cross said it had received about 10,000 lats (14,200 euros) in donations by Jan. 3, with most of the funds coming from commercial banks and private individuals. All money collected will be transferred to the International Federation of the Red Cross in February.

The Latvian government on Jan. 4 decided to grant 142,000 euros from the state budget to assist the southeast Asian countries impacted by the natural catastrophe.

The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs donated 500,000 kroons (32,000 euros) to the IFRC, and by Jan. 4 donations from private individuals to Red Cross bank accounts, as well as via phone payments, exceeded 1 million kroons.

The Lithuanian Red Cross Society said it had collected some 149,400 litas (43,300 euros) over the week, while another NGO - Lithuanian Caritas - has collected 11,100 litas.

Grazina Jevgrafoviene, depu-ty secretary general of the Red Cross Society, told the Baltic News Service on Jan. 4 that people were donating money like never before. "A total of 914 donors have responded to the call to support the victims to date [Jan. 4 morning]," she said.

Still, many in the Baltics expressed dismay at the sluggish response of relief organizations. As one Riga businessman told The Baltic Times, "After the disaster occurred we tried to contact [Latvian] Red Cross officials to discuss ways to cooperate... [but] it seems the Red Cross office was closed for the holiday." He said that no one answered the phone or the fax machine at the Red Cross' office in Latvia, and that a Foreign Ministry official told him that the ministry couldn't get through to the organization as well.

"I find it quite strange that while CNN showed video [footage] of items being unloaded from planes with markings Norway Red Cross that the Latvian Red Cross offices are closed," said the businessman.

In addition, one Estonian medical expert joined the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Indonesia. A 15-strong Estonian disaster relief team with a two-week assignment term has reached the Banda Aceh region in Indonesia to help the local authorities. The mission will cost about 3 million kroons and will be financed from the government's reserve.

Three Estonian police officers from the DVI (disaster victim identification) unit, together with their Finnish colleagues, hooked up with Norwegian, Swedish and Danish experts on Jan. 3 in Phuket to help identify bodies.

"Time, water and hot weather have done their job. The deceased can be mostly identified by DNA probes and dental cards," Police Commissioner Annika Lall, a member of the Estonian DVI team, was quoted by the police department press officer as saying.

The police department said the decision to send the DVI unit to Asia was necessary due to the vast scale of the disaster, as well as the need to help Estonia's Scandinavian neighbors. Swedish tourists were one of the worst affected among foreigners who had been vacationing in the area.

One of the Estonian DVI experts' main tasks is to find the missing Estonians. The experts will work in the disaster region for two weeks, which will cost about 64,000 euros.

A number of municipalities in Estonia followed the lead of their Finnish counterparts and rescheduled the New Year's Eve fireworks to donate the equivalent sums of money to the tsunami disaster victims. The municipalities of Tartu and Tallinn will hold the fireworks on various holidays and memorable dates in February.