BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Former Presidents Clinton and Bush flew into the heart of Asia's tsunami disaster area Sunday and met tent-dwelling survivors who pleaded for help to rebuild their lives.
The pair, appointed by the current President Bush to lead private U.S. fundraising for tsunami relief, arrived in military helicopters at the ruins of the Indonesian village of Lampuuk, a wasteland except for its mosque and some tents shaking in the wind.
"I'm very happy you came here. We need food, clean water, everything," villager Akhi Sukri told them. He lost his parents, sister and brother to the massive waves Dec. 26.
"I would like a school," 12-year-old Aulia Rahman, who lost his father and a younger brother, said through an interpreter. He wore a badge of a U.S. flag pinned to his yellow T-shirt.
Lampuuk had 6,500 inhabitants before the 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."
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," Clinton said. "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.'
"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."
On Sunday night, Clinton and Bush flew to Sri Lanka where they met President Chandrika Kumaratunga for dinner. Today, they will visit that country's battered south coast and the Maldives.