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Tsunami Survivors Try to Rebuild Lives as Body Recovery Continues in Thailand

  • Scott Bobb

It has been more than two weeks since an earthquake and tsunami killed thousands of people in the Indian Ocean area and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions more. In southwestern Thailand's Khao Lak area, workers still search for the bodies of several thousand missing people while the survivors struggle to rebuild their lives.

It is late morning and the sun is beating hard on the tents of Ban Bang Muang settlement, which spreads like a field of brightly colored mushrooms across the grounds of a local government facility.

Several children romp in a temporary playground of inflatable toys, while their parents nearby pick through hills of donated clothes.

In a nearby tent, cheery volunteers hand out bags of groceries and toiletries. And under another broad tarpaulin, medical workers treat patients with ills ranging from colds to digestive bugs. Visitors stream through the settlement, chatting with the residents.

Ban Bang Maung is a teeming community. But a closer look reveals that the children laugh and play, but at times lapse into silence and stares. The adults sometimes also seem to drift into a dream world far away.

Ban Bang Muang's 3,000 inhabitants are what is left of Ban Nam Khem, a Thai fishing village on the coast a few kilometers away that was one of the towns hardest-hit by the December 26 tsunami. One-fourth of the town's people are dead or missing. Everyone has lost a family member, a friend, a neighbor.

Next to the field of tents, Thai soldiers build temporary shelters of wood and tin roofing. Several rows of these one-room dwellings have been finished and, on this day, the first group of 60 families is moving in.

Chalun Denkam, a wiry, 55-year-old man with a leathery face, sits in the doorway of his new home, now an empty room. Khun (Mr.) Chalun says he spent 40 years making a living on the Andaman Sea, then a giant wave took his family, his wife and only daughter, and destroyed his boat.

He says he does not know what he will do now. All he knows is fishing.

In front of another dwelling, Wilot Luangwong, is chatting with a friend. A 45-year-old wearing battered sunglasses, Khun Wilot, who is blind, worked as a masseur on the beach. He says he survived because his wife saw the wave coming and yelled at him to run.

Khun Wilot says he does not know what he will do now, since the hotels in Khao Lak are destroyed and all the tourists, who were his customers, are gone.

One of the coordinators of the settlement is Amporn Kaewnoo, who works for a Thai community development organization. As he gazes out over the camp, he explains that it was important to gather the people back together.

"To collect them together is very important, because when they are dispersed everywhere, they don't know where are their relatives, where are their friends, where are their neighbors, whether they are still alive or dead. But when we collect them and they stay together it is better for them. That is the first therapy," said Amporn Kaewnoo.

Relief workers are pushing to restore a sense of normalcy to the community. They are rushing to complete the temporary shelters and move everyone out of the tents. They also have re-opened the neighborhood school, which was not damaged. They say that even though the children may have lost one-fourth of their classmates, returning to the familiar building will give them something to hold on to and help the healing.

Mr. Amporn says the tsunami has been an education for Thailand, which had never experienced a disaster on such a scale. He says that despite the trauma and the loss of life, the experience will help the government and relief organizations better prepare should a disaster like this ever strike again.