Some give up search for missing from tsunami


Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 10:50 p.m.
PHUKET, Thailand - After spending days poring over photos of corpses, wandering through tsunami -wrecked beach resorts and prowling through Thai hospital wards, Catherine and David Smith decided to end their search for their two missing friends.
The turning point came when the Canadian couple traveled 90 miles north to the Andaman Beach Resort in Khao Lak, where John and Jackie Knill of North Vancouver had stayed. Their hotel had been obliterated.
"That removed most, if not all, of the uncertainty," David Smith said.
So, joined by two Knill relatives, the Smiths held a memorial service on that beach, with a Buddhist prayer and flowers tossed into the sea.
"We said our goodbye. All the time we were looking out to the surf, where everything looked like it should. It was beautiful," David Smith said. "And we had our back to what was once Khao Lak."
When the tsunami struck, many bodies were swept out to sea, hastily buried in mass graves, cremated or held in morgues for identification. Some were later exhumed for DNA samples.
Three weeks after the disaster, even the most persistent are having to give up and return to jobs and households in Europe and North America. But for local people left behind, the pain could be far harder to shake, since they remain surrounded by death, destruction and a rebuilding effort that could take years.
"As time goes by with not finding a loved one, reality will sink in. Viewing the devastation of the area also helps to face reality that 'yes this terrible awful thing did happen,' " said Margaret Miles, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has worked with disaster survivors and grieving parents.
"On the other hand, not giving up the search may occur if individuals want to hold on to the notion that this really didn't happen, like it's still a bad dream." she said in an interview by e-mail. In Thai beach resorts such as Phuket, the relief centers, hospitals and morgues set up in Buddhist temples are no longer filled with dazed and crying people searching for their friends and relatives.
But in Sri Lanka, where children accounted for a staggering 12,000 of the 31,000 dead, many parents are continuing to search.
"The parents never give up," said Tahirih Qurratulayn, a therapist who works with Save the Children in Sri Lanka. "Only the intensity of the searches goes down." She said many parents feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for having failed to save their children.
In Banda Aceh, the hardest-hit area of Indonesia, few hold out much hope that the missing would be found alive.
At a souvenir shop-turned-information center, volunteers updated computer databases. Damp fliers bearing photos of the lost hung on boards outside. Few people were there hunting for relatives swept up in the tsunami.
Three days after the Dec. 26 disaster, about 800 relatives a day were coming in, said Asyraf, 29, a relief worker there. Now there are about 100 a day, he said.
Of the 10,000 people who came, only about 70 got results, said Asyraf, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
"Some people gave up after a week, some people are still looking today," Asyraf said. Many people finally "faced reality" after seeing that the areas where their loved ones had been were flattened.
In Thailand, half of the 5,300 dead are believed to be foreigners, and some relatives had a very hard time giving up their search.
Consider Carl Michael Bergman, 40, of Sweden, which suffered the heaviest losses of any Western nation - 52 dead and 637 missing.
Bergman was diving in the Andaman Sea off the Khao Lak resort area in Thailand when the tsunami struck, and he made it back to shore safely. His 3-year-old son, Nils, was on an elephant ride nearby and also survived. His 37-year-old wife, Cecilia, and their 18-month-old son, Hannes, were swept away outside their bungalow near the beach. Hannes was rescued, but Cecilia is still missing.
After talking to witnesses and scouring the area, mortuaries and hospitals, Bergman drew a map showing where Cecilia and Hannes had been sitting by a swimming pool near their bungalow when the tsunami struck. He drew a line showing where they had run to escape, and an "X" where he had found their beige backpack.
Finally on Thursday, Jan. 6, just hours before he was to head home to Stockholm, Bergman sat down to talk with the manager of the destroyed Mukdara Beach Resort.
The manager said he had visited it soon after the disaster and had seen Cecilia's naked body, her swimsuit likely ripped off by the tsunami. He believed she had been taken to a mortuary, but he didn't know which one.
Bergman didn't cry. He had done that too many times since the tsunami.
As he left, some Thais sitting at a restaurant waved to him. "Goodbye! You go?"
"She's dead. I know now. She's dead. I'm going home," he said to them from the street, and went to gather his belongings for the long journey home.

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