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June 2005 - Issue No. #57 (14-15)
I’m an American EFL teacher and teach college-level English courses in Korea. This past winter holiday, I visited Thailand to see friends and relax between semesters. I’d bought gifts for my friends, so I played Santa on December 25th then collapsed to rest in the tropical sun, sand and surf on the 26th. But, by noon, the shocking news of the Asian tsunami devastating the west coast of Thailand…less than 100 miles away...stunned everyone, for we all had friends and relatives involved.
Sleepless nights followed, partially due to the fact that I was only 50 meters from the sea but more so due to a heavy feeling of guilt. I had no set schedule, lots of free time, lots of energy and a deep love of people. Yet here I was basking in the sun while thousands were suffering in reach of my locale. So “Miss Volunteer” helped collect a truckload of relief supplies for the Samui District government and offered to help distribute it. Off I went to the town of Khaolak (north of Phuket) which was the hardest hit area in Thailand.
My heart sunk as we drove over the crest of the mountain overlooking Khaolak… for the whole town was gone! I could not imagine the horrifying sights and sounds of the thousands of souls swept so quickly into the hands of God by the tsunami. The silence was deafening…even the usual soft lull of the sea meeting the sandy shore was not there…no waves, no sounds, no life…almost as if the sea was mourning for those it took and never returned.
We found the temporary tent city of 3,500 refugees where we delivered our ‘gifts’ from Samui. Although depressing, it was organized and orderly but eerily silent. Pup tents with families of three or four, chow lines (which were definitely NOT serving their life-long staple, fish) moving in slow motion and the faces of thousands with glassy stares of disbelief, sorrow, fear and hopeless desperation. The helpless feeling was overwhelming for someone like me who jumps right in to give what I can to make things better, but how?
We departed for our return to Samui. As we reached the next town, Takuapa, we found a Buddhist temple swarming with media. Naturally curious, we stopped to ask what was happening. Being a foreigner, I was immediately escorted through two checkpoints into the inner sanctum. A medical officer from the organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF - Medecins sans Frontieres) told me this was a ‘staging’ area to identify the corpses of foreigners killed in the tsunami. I asked if they needed help, and he said, “God, yes!” He asked if I had a strong stomach. I told him ‘yes’, having ‘bagged’ blown-up GIs in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I thus found my mission and promised to help in any way I could. I went off for a quick change of bags to Samui and was back two days later ready to work.
After getting my volunteer name badge, I was greeted by the (female) Thai doctor in charge of forensics (a delightfully spunky, but controversial, character). Within 20 minutes, I was suited up in a white gown, a hood, rubber gloves, boots and the all-important mask to join a team to carefully place dry ice on the decomposing bodies in the courtyard of the temple. Seeing hundreds of bodies neatly lined in rows on the ground and smelling the stench of death again after so many years brought back the helpless feeling of the task ahead.
My first day was spent with dry ice, attaching and recording ID numbers, and making a few acquaintances with the living, for I was very much alone and was beginning to feel that loneliness. Mostly Europeans vacation in Thailand, so I was the only American at that time with about 20 other volunteers from Europe and Australia. The staff of Doctors Without Borders were the backbone of the medical miracles expected to be performed. As usual, administration types, politics and foreign pressures on the Thai organizations, basic cultural differences, fatigue and depression all contributed to stress, friction, and counter- productive ‘policies’ causing not only delays in the identification process but major setbacks leading us all to believe that the process would never end. For 10 days, I helped in any way I could by taking DNA samples (hair, nails, teeth, etc.), photos of teeth, tattoos, jewelry, distinctive marks, cataloguing the results, posting the photos and information on massive bulletin boards outside the temple and, in general, just trying to lift the spirits of the workers.
New refrigerated containers finally arrived helping to decrease the need for the dry ice brigade. However, bodies continued to bloat to the point that photo IDs were not possible. The doctors liked my sense of humor and my attempts to brighten their days, and fought for me to stay when the new anti-American Aussie commander sent the other three American volunteers packing. We stayed in a local office and had little access to any communication. However, I did get messages out to friends and family that I had not been affected by the tsunami, but found myself, voluntarily, in the middle of it. My conscience would not have allowed me to do otherwise. I could write volumes about all we saw and did but here I just wanted to share a glimpse of my experience. When 9/11 happened, the Americans and the world pointed a finger with anger, but who is to blame for the earth shifting? Blaming God would take away the only solace left.
Korea TESOL Global Issues SIG
This article is based on a talk by the author at the Korea TESOL Seoul SIG Day event held May 21 in Seoul, Korea. She is currently teaching English in Thailand.
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