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Remarks by Carol Bellamy, Colombo Press Conference

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA, 3 January 2005

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy:

Hello I’m Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF.  Thank you all for being here.

I am joined by the head of the UNICEF office in Sri Lanka, Ted Chaiban.  I should begin by saying how proud I am of Ted and the UNICEF staff based in six offices across Sri Lanka for their quick response to the emergency, even though some of their own homes were destroyed.

I’d like to make a few general remarks about this extraordinary disaster, the relief effort, and where we go from here. Then I’ll be happy to take questions.

Over the last two days I’ve had an opportunity to visit some of the hardest-hit regions of Sri Lanka, in all parts of the country – south, east, and north.  The death and devastation are truly overwhelming, and I extend my deepest sympathy to the people across this region who have suffered so much loss.

As head of UNICEF my primary concern is for children.  Early in this crisis UNICEF had estimated that at least one-third of the dead were children.  We now believe that percentage was too low – that in fact children will turn out to be disproportionate victims of the floods.  In the camps I visited throughout the country, children were simply too small a proportion of the survivors.

Late last week we expressed concern for the number of children orphaned or separated from their families.  It now appears the numbers are higher than we thought.  In the north alone I am told there are some 3,000 new orphans.

One thing that has not changed, however, is our emphasis on the need for clean water, decent sanitation, and adequate medical supplies in all the communities that have been hit.  Three days after the tsunami hit, for example, UNICEF had medical kits in country to provide enough hospital supplies for a 150,000 patients. These are already in use.

In the areas I visited – Matara, Batticaloa, Ampara, and Mullaitivu – relief has been getting through.  I saw supplies being delivered, clean water in use at shelters, and in some places excellent coordination among the various actors.  I have been pleased with the UNICEF role in supporting the government’s relief efforts.

But let me be clear: The hardest work is still ahead.  I am aware that there are parts of the country that have not yet been reached, and that the suffering among the survivors there is severe. 

In the coming days UNICEF, along with the rest of the UN family, will announce its formal appeal for tsunami victims around the Indian Ocean.  I can tell you that here in Sri Lanka alone, UNICEF will spend at least $40 million to help keep children alive, to get them back in school, and to give them hope for the future.  Around the entire region our appeal could go as high as $120 million.

Tonight, after I meet with the President, I will fly on to Indonesia.  While relief efforts in India and Sri Lanka are well underway, in Indonesia there are massive challenges in front of us. 

Nonetheless, whether it is India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, The Maldives, Thailand, or any of the other countries that were hit by the tsunamis, there are four basic measures that must be implemented to give children – this devastated tsunami generation – a fighting chance.  I’d like to mention these four basic measures because I believe to be successful in the long-run, the relief effort must from the very beginning focus on children.

First, the relief effort everywhere must focus on keeping children alive.  This means clean water, adequate sanitation, basic nutrition, and routine medical care.  These are basics that cannot be over emphasized.  Keeping children who survived the floods alive and healthy must be our priority.

Second, caring for separated children.  Across the region we must find children who’ve lost their families, identify them, and reunite them with their extended families and communities. 

Third, our efforts everywhere must ensure that children are protected from exploitation.  In tumult like this, when families are broken apart, when incomes are lost, when dignity and hope are in short supply, children are more vulnerable to abuses.  Our relief efforts must be conceived and carried out in a way that reduces these vulnerabilities and helps restore children’s trust in the world.

Finally, we must help children cope with their trauma by getting them back in school as quickly as possible.  Nothing will signal hope more clearly than rebuilding and reopening schools.  Being in a learning environment gives children something positive to focus on, and enables the adults around them to go about the business of rebuilding with greater confidence.  As one elderly woman told UNICEF in her demolished village, “for our traumatized children, school will be the best medicine.”

UNICEF urges everyone involved in the global response to make these four measures for children priorities in a coordinated relief effort.  We are devoting our own resources to these priorities, and will support governments and other partners to do so as well.  In many places UNICEF has been asked to lead in coordinating the international effort in these sectors.

I must say I have been deeply touched by my visit.  To imagine the shocking deaths of so many, and even more so the incredible survival of so many more – is a powerful reminder of both the frailty and resiliency of human life.  One of the most haunting sights I witnessed was in the southeast of the country, where I met adults who were standing vigil on the beach in the narrow hope that the bodies of their children might wash ashore. 

We have much work to do.  My commitment to all of the countries hit is that UNICEF will stand with you for the long haul. We would also appeal to all who have been touched by these global tragedy to help us honor that commitment.




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