Dazed Amid the Rubble, Thais Await Bodies of Kin

NAM KHEM, Thailand Feb. 14, 2005 : Sakol Kamchok stood where he has stood every day since the tsunami struck this village, at the edge of a foul lake of sludge that is the last hope for those who have found no trace of missing family members.

The pumps that have been draining it into the sea for the past month have exhumed motorcycles, cars and scrap metal, but not the bloated, rotting corpses that would set Mr. Sakol’s heart at ease.

“I have to know,” he said recently, speaking of two missing nieces who shared his home in this little fishing village in southern Thailand. “I feel like I’m tied up in knots. They can’t be just missing or unknown. They have to have a proper end to their lives, not simply disappear.”

Almost half the population of 5,000 people here are dead or missing after the enormous waves shattered their homes on Dec. 26, slamming them against walls, sucking them out to sea, snatching them as they ran for their lives.

Another 5,000 illegal immigrants from Myanmar, formerly Burma, are believed to have lived here, too, and they are now gone. Nobody knows what happened to them.

None of the survivors have returned from temporary shelters to live in the ruins.

Nam Khem is now a haunted place, echoing with the last moments of terror of the people who died here.


Photo by Seth Mydans

Some of the dead appear in the dreams of those they left behind, or even in their waking moments, and the villagers say some of the survivors have collapsed with grief.

“My father just sits and stares,” said Phrapa Chanmuang, 17, who lost 6 of the 11 members of her family. “One day he asked me for a suitcase. I said, ‘We don’t have a suitcase.’ He said: ‘Go buy one. I want to get away from here.’ I don’t think he is really leaving, though.”

There is the bitter man who keeps repeating, “Why did the waves take all my family and leave only me behind?”

There is the brave man who cries only when he thinks no one is looking.

There is the man who will not stop searching the rubble for his wife and children even though workers have already scraped it clear.

At the Bang Muang School, where 51 of the 200 students from Nam Khem died and 45 others were orphaned, the director, Chitdee Thongsen, struggles for normality. “The children seem to be taking it quite well,” he said. “Sometimes they just stop and stare into space. I think they may be thinking about a lost relative.”

More than a month after the disaster, though, the future is creeping in. The schoolchildren are preparing for exams. Thai soldiers are clearing the ruins and digging foundations for what they say will be 100 homes.

The smell of death is gone, though it lingers in nearby scrapyards where what remains of Nam Khem has been reduced to heaps of sheet metal, pipes, wire, plastic, refrigerators, gas cylinders and tin cans.

Villagers have grown accustomed to busloads of Thai tourists who drive slowly past them, staring as they sit among the ruins of their lives. Preoccupied now with bureaucracy, they shuttle from office to office in the nearby town of Takua Pa, seeking the compensation promised by the government and staking legal claims to their plots of land.

When they look ahead, their main concern is boats. Most of the men fish, and only half a dozen of some 300 boats survived the waves. “Our real problem is we have no way to make a living,” said Prayun Chongkraichak, 38, who runs a small collective of surviving fishermen.

The men busy themselves weaving hundreds of new fish traps, but even if they had boats, they fear that any catch would be contaminated with waste. “We have lost our trust in the sea,” Mr. Prayun said.

The stories of those who survived sound unnervingly like the stories told of those who died. They could easily have changed places.

Mr. Sakol said his missing nieces were apparently flushed out through a gash in the corrugated metal roof of their home. His mother clung to a roof beam as the water tore at her and survived.

Ms. Phrapa outraced the wave on a small motorbike, carrying a child with her. Riding another motorbike nearby, her mother was caught by the rushing water, flipped upside down and pulled under to her death.

“It was fate,” said Am Changkraichok, 68, a fisherman. “If you were meant to die, you died. People visiting here to see friends, or foreigners here on holiday, all were here because their time had come to die.”

“I’ve lived here all my life but I was spared,” he said. “How do you explain that? My time had not yet come. When I think like this, it makes me feel better. Nature decides. Things come and things disappear. If you don’t just let go, it can make you crazy.”

Every evening now, on an empty beach at the southern edge of Nam Khem, Saengarun Pholasen, 50, a metal worker, brings three cans of beer and sits on the patio of a ruined restaurant. He takes two cans for himself and pours the third into a plastic cup for his best friend, Somsak, one of the victims of the wave.

“Four or five nights ago, I saw him standing by my bed and he said no one was caring for his soul,” Mr. Saengarun said. “It wasn’t a dream. He was standing there. So I come out here now where we used to drink together after work.”

Mr. Saengarun calls out to his friend, “Somsak! Somsak!” to let him know his beer is waiting for him. Then he sits alone watching a huge red sun sink into the sea, one beer in his hand, the plastic cup untouched, as cicadas buzz in the pine trees, the daylight fades away and the entire world around him grows dark.

Copyright The New York Times