Survivors of the tsunami leave former US presidents visibly moved

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The Independent Online

A Black Hawk helicopter yesterday swooped over the battered Thai village of Ban Nam Khen, which lost one third of its population of 5000 in Boxing Day's killer waves.

Out popped the former American presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Snr, both bareheaded in the tropical glare. They met survivors and relief workers in a gritty clearing where houses and small boats are being rebuilt by the Thai army and international aid agencies.

When orphaned schoolgirls in crisp new uniforms showed them their crayon drawings of the disaster, even these veteran politicians choked up. In one, a woman floats with her eyes blank; in the other, a rescue helicopter hovers over a sea awash with cars and people. It was a raw start to a gruelling tour for an octogenarian and a recovering heart patient.

Both former presidents were appointed by Washington to encourage private and corporate donations for the victims of the calamity, which already have exceeded $2bn (£1.1bn) worldwide.

Some 300,000 people, including those missing and presumed dead, are believed to have vanished in the earthquake-powered waves that pummelled the Indian Ocean coastlines of 11 countries on 26 December.

This morning the ex-presidents were due to move on to Banda Aceh, where corpses are still being unearthed in the rubble, and then continue to Sri Lanka. They will finish up in the Maldives before returning to the United States tomorrow.

Both men praised Thailand's disaster management, stressing that their mission is to promote compassion and to put people above politics. "On issues about which there can be no debate, there should be no problems," Mr Clinton said, as a visibly jet-lagged Mr Bush stood at his elbow. The White House estimates that one third of American households have contributed to tsunami charities, more than half donating online.

"When it comes to helping people, politics is aside," Mr Bush added with a tight smile. "I've enjoyed working with President Clinton. We were political adversaries. The current president and he don't always see eye to eye on issues. But that is not what's important here."

The biggest banner in the crowd at Ban Nam Khen read: "Bill, let's talk please." And he did. "I was struck by the staggering scale of the loss," Mr Clinton told a rapt crowd. "We hope to learn some more about what else we can do."

Splintered trawlers are left stranded in the silt beside the village's few remaining original structures. The villagers asked for them to be left there as a reminder of the sea's fury. The tsunami hit on the morning after a full moon, when most of the fishing fleet was in the harbour. Had the boats been in the open sea, they would have ridden over the swells; but one third of the fleet was destroyed, and half the engines were wrecked.

Nets and motors under repair are strewn on every flat surface, and great scrap heaps of salvage line the highway through the jungles to the Khao Lak resorts, where thousands of foreign tourists were swept away.

At the disaster victim identification centre in Phuket, where 500 forensic experts are still cataloguing thousands of foreign cadavers before they can be flown home, Mr Clinton and Mr Bush laid a wreath for American victims just before sunset. They walked along a flag-festooned wall that commemorates 37 nations which all lost citizens to the waves on Thailand's Andaman coast.

Near the American flag, someone placed a sticker from New York Fire Department engine 217, under which was scrawled: "We all work to bring you home." Officials at the site pointed out that it took 18 months before identification for the victims at the World Trade Center was finished, and that it would be many months before the bodies could be returned. Some will never be found.