Asia Death Toll May Never Be Known

Armies of officials are tabulating the deaths caused by the tsunami (search) that struck a dozen countries in Asia and Africa last weekend. The grim task is often imprecise.

There is meticulous record keeping in many areas of India but bulldozers push bodies into mass graves in other places in Asia, forcing officials to make guesstimates.

"You are dealing with a lot of imperfections," said Steve Hollingworth, director of India's branch of the international aid group CARE (search). "People are dealing with a chaotic situation."

So far, the death toll across 12 nations has exceeded 114,000.

In India, a network of bureaucratic foot soldiers — local health, police and revenue officials — are recording every death in five-column registers resembling school notebooks: one column each for the victim's name, age, parents' names, address and two identification marks. A photograph is taken of each body.

Sri Lanka follows a similar process, although the military, police, the National Disaster Management Center (search) and government ministers give different death tolls. The disaster center said more than 22,000 people died.

When asked whether the government could coordinate efforts to come up with one figure, the center's director, Nimal Hettiarchchi, snapped, "Sorry, don't ask me this question."

In Indonesia, officials swamped by the vast numbers admit they have been forced to make crude estimates, such as by taking the number of bodies in one mass grave and multiplying it by the number of graves. In other cases, they estimate the population of a village, count the survivors and assume the rest have been killed.

"At first, we counted the bodies during the evacuation, but later, when we found there were too many others, then we became confused," said Irman Rachman, a volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross.

"Therefore, we only based our estimation on the number of corpses buried in the mass graves — one for about 400 corpses."

Mindful of the emotional toll the process takes, local leaders have gotten approval from Muslim leaders to hold mass burials. In Muslim villages of Sri Lanka, residents hurriedly buried their dead within 24 hours in keeping with Islamic tradition, even before the official count began.

"I am sure there are thousands of variations on that scenario," Hollingworth said.

On Wednesday, officials in Indonesia's Aceh province bulldozed hundreds of bodies into pits. No identity photos were taken, and no details of the mostly naked, dirty corpses were written down.

"We have to do this because of the smell and the health concern. We're facing a major health hazard if we leave them lying around," acting Aceh Gov. Azwar Abu Bakar said. "We have no refrigerators to keep these bodies."

Unrecorded deaths can mean the difference between eternal poverty and starting a new life for many widows, who must depend on government pension or compensation.

Cultural differences, a chaotic bureaucracy and geographic isolation of regions in Indonesia, an archipelago of 13,000 islands, and India's Andaman and Nicobar islands also have hampered efforts to count the dead.

It has been a dozen years since Indonesia undertook a census, and in remote regions the population count may be even less accurate because many villages keep scant written records of births and deaths. This means any estimate of the death toll will be imperfect.

However, the Indian government's bookkeeping system has compiled an unambiguous, if highly conservative, count of Sunday's tragedy — 6,974 dead and thousands more missing, mostly in Andaman and Nicobar. Nearly all the islands in those chains, spread out over hundreds of miles, are accessible only by boats, most of which capsized or were damaged by the thundering wall of water.

At a morgue in the coastal town of Cuddalore on India's mainland, a government physician, Dr. S. Narayanswamy, announces on the public address system to waiting crowds outside: "There are four ladies and a boy of five years, or is it eight years, here. Please come and identify."

A man and a woman come in hesitatingly, look at the dead boy's face and shake their heads. They are asked to leave and the next couple walks in and erupts into wails, beating their chests and rolling on the ground. Within moments, a numbered tag is attached the body's arm and the official toll goes up by one.

The illiterate parents affix their thumbprints to a form entitling them to a death certificate and government compensation.