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THAILAND: Common Courage in the Face of Disaster

Fabio Scarpello

PHUKET, Thailand, Dec 29 2004 (IPS) - Four days after Sunday’s massive earthquake and subsequent tsunamis in the South-east and South Asian region, bodies are still being pulled from the wreckage in Thailand’s southern island resort of Phuket.

The Thai government now puts the number of dead at 1,500 with more than 1,000 people, mostly foreign tourists, still missing, following a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake under the Indian Ocean off Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

The death toll in the 10 affected Indian Ocean countries has already passed the 40,000 figure with tens of thousands still unaccounted for.

As aid agencies make their way to Phuket island, the town hall has become the center of operations for the huge humanitarian effort that is underway. Also, the Thai government together with representatives of most embassies have set up shop here to help stranded tourists.

”We arrived at 11pm on Sunday and there were already over 500 people in the town hall,” said Suphot Yanthukis, the officer in charge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Coordinating Team.

Tempers rise as desperate tourists, who have either lost their travel documents or loved ones scramble around for attention. Tears have become a common sight and chaos is unavoidable. Many are also clinging on to hope – any slight hope to indicate that a family member is still alive.

”We do what we can,” said Suphot adding that it is a very difficult situation they were not prepared to face. He also said that the disposal of bodies is now turning out to be the main problem.

The Thai government has appealed to the international community for forensic equipment to help identify the victims and refrigerated mortuaries to store the corpses while the identification process takes place.

Phuket’s hospitals are already overflowing with bodies as well as the injured. Schools, temples and public buildings have also been converted into makeshift mortuaries.

There is an urgent need for blood on the island to treat the injured and donation centers are located in every hospital as well as in the town hall.

In the town hall, as well as in the hospitals, billboards have been filled with pictures of dead or missing people. And the same data is on websites for the benefit of a larger public.

Estimates of the dead vary wildly and change rapidly but it is clear to all that the government’s tally of 1,500 is a conservative estimate. As more bodies are pulled out from the debris and wreckage, it could be doubled in the next few days.

Some, however, believe that as many as 5,000 might have perished in the tidal waves.

”There were bodies everywhere, it was terrible, awful just awful,” said Marek a Polish tourist just rescued from nearby Phi Phi Island. He’s in Phuket at the moment helping the Thai army bury the dead.

Like Marek, Australian-born Leonard and Tanja have decided not to return home, yet. They have organised a team of volunteers at Wachira Hospital to help stranded tourists and homeless locals.

”We are staying here as long as it takes,” they said.

The team they head deals with queries and it is made-up of university students. Nanfon is one of them. She is fluent in English and decided to help those struggling with the language barrier.

”The university has agreed to postpone our semester exams to allow us to help out,” she told IPS.

At the hospitals, volunteer doctors have joined the local medical team and the various international organisations, in attending to the injured.

Karen, a Bangkok based British doctor, headed south as soon as she heard of the disaster.

”I just go around to the hospitals and do what I can. The fact that I speak English also helps,” she said.

Patt, an English speaking Thai student, works at the town hall. She is one of the 700 local volunteers that walked in and offered to help.

”I felt I had to do something,” she said. She currently works shifts to cover the international emergency hotline.

But it is not only students and professionals who are showing compassion. Housewives, shopkeepers, taxi drivers are among the others lending a hand.

”We all bring something to the town hall so that it can be distributed to the needy. Those that have money give money otherwise it’s either rice or eggs. But many simply help cleaning, cooking or serving…” said Nan, who sells shoes by trade.

Nan, like most locals listens to ‘Radio Pagyie’, a popular local station that is helping broadcast vital public information from the aid agencies.

Like the others, Ross and Wendy Wright, too, have decided to help in any possible way.

”We know that hotels are damaged and we have offered our school rooms,” they told IPS. Both are teachers at the exclusive Dulwich International School where over 300 people have found refuge.

Ross explained that, although on holiday, the local staff returned to work and are now providing assistance. Among them, he said, the school counselors face the hardest task.

”They are used to dealing with adolescence problems. But now they have to handle people who are grieving. Some have had their children slip out their arms when the tidal waves struck,” said Ross.

For Sue, a tourist guide, in the midst of sadness there is also hope.

”I did not know that Phuket had so many friends: foreigners as well as the Thai government have been really helpful,” she said. ”Seeing the locals helping out has given me hope.”

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