The world will never know how many people lost their lives in the cataclysm that struck the Indian Ocean region a week ago.
The official death toll moved incrementally forward to 123,184 yesterday, with more than 80,000 of these in Indonesia and nearly 30,000 in Sri Lanka. But one leading observer Laila Freivalds, the Swedish Foreign Minister said after visiting Thailand: "The whole area is still chaotic. Dead bodies are being collected, boats are arriving from the islands loaded with dead people. In the whole area, the death toll is beginning to rise towards 200,000."
The confusion in Thailand is one of the reasons why the number of dead Britons remains mystifyingly small at 35 29 in Thailand, three in Sri Lanka, and three in the Maldives a tiny fraction of those visiting the country at this time of year. The Foreign Office yesterday persisted in refusing to estimate the number of Britons still missing, or say how many inquiries they have logged from families. One official admitted: "It could run into hundreds." It is anxious to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment that followed the tragedy in the US on 11 September 2001, when original estimates of the number of British dead proved to be grossly inflated.
The quest for accurate figures means that even in death, tourists are treated differently from the native population. Local authorities have been asked by the British and other governments to treat Western corpses separately, so that they can be identified before burial. One of the first aid packages shipped to Thailand and Sri Lanka was a batch of "portable mortuaries" in which corpses are to be stored for identification.
But in some of the worst-affected areas, the threat of disease has overruled Western sensibilities, and an unknown number of Britons will have been hastily pushed into unmarked graves. Others will have been swept out to sea, where their bodies will never be recovered.
Some of the British tourists who survived the disaster flew into Heathrow airport yesterday where they were met by relieved relatives and told of how close they had come to death.
Charlie Anderson, 28, a television company employee from London, described how he thought he was going to die after his boat capsized when the waves hit. He and his friends were on a snorkeling trip at the Thai resort of Krabi when the waves struck.
He said: "I was in the water with my friend and our two girlfriends in a speedboat, I heard the engine of the boat start up. I asked the girls what was happening, turned around to be confronted by a good 25, 30, 40 feet it's very hard to tell but in the water looking up it looked vast, the boat went over my head. I remember the propeller flashing past my face, I was sucked right down to the bottom."
"The third time I came up I just had no energy. I didn't know what had happened."
Eventually he blacked out briefly but was able to reach for a lifejacket and was saved. He added: "Next thing I knew I was washed up on the beach. Then people started coming out of the sea, bodies floating out of the water."
Mr Anderson praised the Thai people and the authorities for the way they dealt with the crisis. "Everyone just stayed calm and relaxed. The Thai people dealt with it so well," he said.
For some families the anxious wait for news goes on, and police reported one particularly nasty email hoax, in which messages purportedly from government officials have been sent to people who placed appeals for information on the Sky News website.
Police said they were treating the matter as a "very serious crime". A spokesman said: "The British Government would not use email to convey news of the death of a loved one."
The hoax emails have all been sent from the same email address: email@example.com. The messages claim to come from the "Foreign Office Bureau" in Thailand and state that the missing person has been confirmed dead.
Archbishop: Faith shaken by disaster
Faith in God is sure to be shaken by the disaster, admits the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. "Every single accidental death is something that should upset a faith bound up with comfort and ready answers," he writes in today's Sunday Telegraph. "Faced with the paralyzing magnitude of a disaster like this, we naturally feel outraged and also deeply helpless. The question 'How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale' is very much around, and it would be wrong if it weren't. Religious believers don't see prayer as a plea for magical solutions that will make the world safe for them and others. The reaction of faith should always be one of passionate engagement with the lives that are left, a response that asks not for understanding but for ways of changing the situation in whatever ways are open to us."
© Copyright 2005 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd.