LAMPUUK, Indonesia – Former presidents Bush and Clinton traveled Sunday to ground zero of tsunami devastation, where they described the destruction as unimaginable and promised survivors who begged for shelter that more help would come.
On the second day of their relief mission to the region, the two former leaders flew in U.S. military helicopters from the provincial capital Banda Aceh (search) over a barren landscape that was once a patchwork of rice paddies, to the village of Lampuuk (search), where the sole structure left standing is a large white mosque.
The village had 6,500 inhabitants before the Dec. 26 disaster. Only 700 remain.
"I've never seen anything like this in my entire life. Ever," Bush said.
As he looked out of the helicopter, Bush said he was counting his blessings. "In my own heart, I was saying we're very lucky. We're very lucky people not to have to go through something like this."
Clinton shook hands with Rahmayadi, one of thousands of survivors left homeless by the disaster. He said his house in Lampuuk had stood in the neighborhood where the Americans visited but was flattened by the tsunami.
"My children and wife died and I didn't get their bodies, so now it's only me and two sons," said the 53-year-old Rahmayadi, who goes by one name. "All we ask for now is shelter because we can't live in tents forever. I will keep being patient until someone helps me."
Bush reassured villagers who greeted them, "You're going to be OK. A lot of people around the world want to help."
Clinton asked one villager, Akhi Sukri, what the survivors needed most.
"They need everything," Sukri replied.
Standing amid the debris of Lampuuk, Clinton said seeing the destruction firsthand helped him understand how so many people died.
The official tsunami death toll ranges from 169,070 to 178,118. The number of missing is believed to be as high as 128,426, with most presumed dead.
"It's hard to imagine those numbers until you see the level of devastation. The first thing I thought was, 'Well, at least now I understand. I understand how they all died. I understand why they couldn't get away,"' Clinton said.
"And then, when we were flying over Banda Aceh, I was struck by how the devastation was total and then more limited, and you'd come into a street and everything would be normal again," he added. "It's almost impossible to appreciate the scope of this if you haven't physically seen it."
Clinton said reconstruction would take three to five years to complete.
President Bush 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 (search) on Saturday and after visiting Aceh, flew to Sri Lanka on Sunday.
The two former leaders discussed reconstruction efforts with Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga and had dinner at the president's residence. They planned to fly to southern Sri Lanka on Monday to visit U.S.-funded housing units and a trauma-counseling program for children in Matara, one of the country's hardest-hit towns. Later Monday, they were scheduled to fly to the Maldives.
In Indonesia, Bush and Clinton also met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who said his country was grateful for aid donated by friendly countries and their people.
Bush called on Indonesia to ensure U.S. aid money was being well spent, said a U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Indonesia is among the world's most corrupt countries, and local anti-corruption watchdogs are already alleging that officials have been siphoning aid meant for Aceh.
"Nothing turns private donors off more than if they saw waste, or fraud, or something like that," Bush said. "But we don't anticipate that. We're very reassured by what the president said, that it's essential that not only our observers and our NGOs, that the Indonesians go forward with us and with other donor nations to be sure that it's delivered most effectively, less overhead and certainly no corruption."
Yudhoyono agreed transparency in distributing aid was important and told the Americans he was committed to fighting corruption.
"From their own words and their body language, they trust us in the reconstruction efforts, including accountability," Yudhoyono said.
Bush and Clinton said they came away reassured that Indonesia would channel aid funds in a transparent, effective way.
The two also urged the Yudhoyono to use relief and reconstruction to help restore peace in Aceh, where rebels have been fighting for independence since 1976.
Yudhoyono said he was trying to reach out to Acehnese and expressed support for talks with the rebels starting Monday in Finland.