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“We’re So Sorry That We Survived When You Didn’t…”

Posted January. 04, 2005 22:15,   


5:00 p.m. on January 1. The sky over Phuket, Thailand became densely overcast. It looked like raindrops would start falling any second.

Mr. Chai (27), the taxi driver who was showing this reporter around the tsunami damage area at Karon Beach, urged a hasty return to our lodgings in the city. He explained that he had a bad feeling.

“It rained out of nowhere that day, too.”

Indeed, rain fell over Thailand the night before the tsunami swept through its southern regions on December 26. December falls within Thailand’s dry season (generally from October to May), so it hardly ever rains during that month.

Our driver was not the only person to see the rain clouds on the first day of the New Year and fear a repetition of the nightmare. The deep psychological damage wrought by the tsunami on the survivors is evident everywhere in the day-to-day lives of the people. Over the past few days, this reporter has heard no less than five times either a rumor or an alarm that another tsunami was coming.

At the end of December 2004, the Thai Ministry of Health dispatched over 5,000 psychiatrists and psychologists to the damage area to administer therapy for the tsunami survivors. Two thousand of them were assigned to the Pang-Nga Province, where the damage was particularly severe. These medical personnel are expected to sojourn for two years at the most.

A Thai government official remarked with apprehension, “The majority of the survivors are suffering from insomnia and stress from the guilt of not having been able to save their family members,” and added, “Without adequate therapy, such guilt may even lead them to suicide.”

In terms of lingering psychological trauma, foreign visitors who encountered the tsunami far away from home are no exception.

American Kimberly Salevsky, whom we met on Phi Phi Island on January 3, shuddered as she said, “I returned here to explain the situation at the time to the family of my late friend, but I’m never coming back to this island again.”

The beach hotels have lost a huge chunk of their business. Whereas hotels within the city limits are teeming with clientele, with 100 or more people on waiting lists for a room at each establishment, the beachfront hotels lining Patong, Karon, and Kata beaches have an occupancy rate of only 30 to 60 percent.

Fearing a collapse of the tourism industry, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made a “surprise” visit to Patong Beach on January 3. He waved to the tourists and implored them to return to Phuket, pledging to restore the hotels to their former states as swiftly as possible.

Nonetheless, the tourists have been spilling out of Phuket like an ebbing tide, and the city is becoming increasingly devoid of activity.

Bangkok Phuket International Hospital, where a temporary ward had been set up in the cafeteria by laying dozens of mattresses on the floor, is recovering apparent tranquility as most of the injured have been discharged. The volunteers withdrew on January 3, and the photos of the missing that had completely covered the foyer directory have mostly disappeared as well.

The Phuket City Hall, which had been bursting with inquirers trying to ascertain the names of the dead or injured, is now fairly quiet except for the relief supplies distribution depot and the damage registration center.

The wave has receded and the people have returned to their lives. But the nightmare etched in their memories will likely remain for a long time to come.

Hyung-June Park lovesong@donga.com