Postcard from Tsunami Ground Zero: Thailand
by Craig Greenfield
I've just been assigned to the infectious waste team. My Thai team leader helps me cover myself from head to toe in the standard-issue disposable overalls, facemask, hairnet, two layers of gloves and gumboots.
I'm in Thailand, 150 kilometres north of the tourist playground of Phuket, volunteering with the tsunami relief operation. Three of us arrived yesterday on an empty flight into a ghost town airport. The customs officer frowned at our boxes of hygiene supplies but grinned and waved us through as soon as we explained it was for the tsunami victims. Beyond customs, Thai touts jostling to rent us a car now share the space with info booths for relatives of tsunami victims.
The walls were plastered with a gallery of grief: ten days worth of photocopied posters, each with a smiling photo of a lost loved one and a desperate request for information.
Outside the arrivals gate, we hired a jeep and drove past miles and miles of rubble, eyes wide at what we knew had been thriving Thai communities and tourist resorts, now reduced to ruins up to three miles inland. Fields of blue tarpaulin tents house thousands of refugees.
Finally we arrived at the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Takuapa, where the processing of foreign and Thai tsunami victims takes place. There are forensic teams here from all over the world as well as Thai soldiers and volunteers.
Officially the Thai government has it all under control, no foreigners please. But here at ground zero, bodies are being brought in by trucks every hour from the search teams who have now begun pumping out local lakes and ponds to find the remaining bodies. A volunteer coordinator with a loudspeaker makes an announcement in Thai and English every few minutes: "We need ten more volunteers to lift dead bodies. We need eight more volunteers to help lift dead bodies. "
With my protective gear finally on, we are led into the make-shift mortuary. My facemask does nothing to stop the oppressive smell; death hangs in the air like another layer of humidity. Dozens and dozens of bodies have just been unloaded from trucks and laid out in rows on the dusty ground. The team leader tells us in broken English that our job is to clean up after they are moved to make room for the next batch of bodies, spray disinfectant on the earth (thus turning it into mud), and fill our black plastic rubbish bags with the infectious debris and discarded body bags.
After about an hour of doing this gruesome task, someone grabs me and asks for help lifting the bodies into the various areas allocated for DNA testing and identification. We need to search each body for a tag which will identify whether it is a foreigner or Thai. I wonder how the forensic teams know. The two of us use a stretcher, but it is back-breaking work. We lift body after bloated, decaying body, and my arms begin to feel like lead. I realise that my grip is weakening on the rough wooden handle of the stretcher and I panic at the thought that I could drop one of the bodies. Gathering every last ounce of energy and determination, I stumble another few metres and lay down the stretcher as gently as I can under the circumstances.
As well as dozens of Thais, there are volunteers here from all over the world: French 20-somethings who strip off in the heat, a tall Swedish guy who sports a huge scary-looking gas mask, and a couple of American guys who are struggling to maintain composure. Another American, named Sean, tells me he's 51 but he just grew up in the last week right here under the tutelage of the tsunami. "I think I'm gonna vomit," wails Doug and heads round the corner with a pale face.
A newfound Thai friend suggests I need a break too, so I make my way over to the water station and a Thai volunteer uses glove covered fingertips to cautiously pull down my facemask and put a straw to my lips. Now back to work.
The day blurs as the hours and bodies pass and then, finally, it's over. Every muscle in my shoulders, arms and legs is aching, unaccustomed to the lifting.
That night we have better luck finding lodgings and I take a long hot shower, scrubbing my skin raw, the smell of death streaming down my body and out the drain.
Tomorrow I will leave the disaster zone. But as the hot water washes over me, I cry out in prayer to God for the millions of Asia's poor who cannot ever leave. The media's focus will shift. The tsunami victims who are barely surviving in refugee camps or eking out an existence in makeshift shelters all over the region will become old news, yesterday's fundraising drive. I have worked alongside them briefly as they bury their dead. Who will walk alongside them as they reconstruct their lives?
Craig Greenfield works for Servants to Asia's Urban Poor
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A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR TO ePistle READERS:
Although I wrote, above, about Thailand, the name of one city keeps coming up: Banda Aceh. A Muslim stronghold, long closed to Christians and foreigners, this Indonesian city is now open for the first time in years, creating an unprecedented window of opportunity that may close just as quickly months or years down the track. This is a Kairos moment: God's timing. We must not ignore the plight of Aceh's urban poor. After soberly and prayerfully considering the situation we are now in a position to do something.
What unique offering could Servants bring to the situation in Aceh, that is not already on offer by well-financed agencies and governments? As the relief phase passes, and media attention shifts, who will walk alongside Aceh's urban poor? Who will move into their devastated slum communities and live alongside them as neighbors and friends bringing the good news? As relief agencies with big budgets and four-wheel drives pack up and leave, who will simply be with the poor, share their grief and toil alongside them for the long haul as they slowly rebuild their lives?
Servants has previously worked with the urban poor in Indonesia, we have worked in war-torn cities and helped urban poor communities rebuild after floods and fires. But most importantly, God has given us a unique calling: to live amongst the urban poor and share their joys and their struggles. We have good NGO contacts in Banda Aceh, partners, who could help us get in there, including friends who are fluent in the language and are willing to help us as brokers and interpreters.
So, as an initial step, we are putting together a pioneer team of relief workers, doctors and nurses who can work and live alongside the urban poor in Banda Aceh to help first and foremost in the relief effort, but with a view to establishing a team to walk alongside Aceh's urban poor for the long haul. We will consider anyone with some time to offer, useful skills, an ability to work with others in a team and God's heart for those who are suffering.
Perhaps God has been speaking to you about something like this, or perhaps you have been looking for some way to assist financially in bringing compassion to the tsunami victims. If so, please email us ASAP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for caring,
Acting International Coordinator
Servants to Asia's Urban Poor