From Sweden to Phuket: a delegate’s story

Published: 24 June 2005 0:00 CET

photographer Hakan Humla

Is this really where I arrived to six months ago? I hesitantly look around the park outside the Townhouse of Phuket. It is hard to believe.

Gone are the streams of people, the pungent food-stalls, the piles of donated clothes and water bottles, the tents, the telephones and TV cameras.

Gone too are the pictures of missing persons. At that time, hope was still alive and its colour was pink. When a person was located, the word ‘FOUND’ was written on the picture and highlighted with a pink marker pen.

Just a few days earlier, I was back home in Sweden, ready for some time off with family and friends. But the earth moved and suddenly it was like being in one of those plastic bubbles that you shake and it snows.

Already on Boxing Day, the day of the disaster, the switchboard at the Swedish Red Cross was showered with telephone calls, because the emergency line set up by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs had broken down.

I remember how I, during the 11-hour flight to Bangkok, was holding on to my right arm, aching after three days of being on call.

And when the plane landed in Phuket, I could still hear the voices: the grandmother, who had waited for hours to reach the Foreign Ministry. “Where are my grandchildren?” she cried. “If only I could read the map.”

The father, who tried to cushion his fear with logic: “Could it be something wrong with the telecommunications in Thailand? Is that why I cannot reach my family?”

The elderly fireman, like so many others who wanted to help, who refused to listen when I tried to explain that the Red Cross was already present on the ground. “But for heavens sake, woman, you must be in need of people!”

When the car travelled up the winding road to death-stricken Khao Lak, I could feel my body reacting in the same ways as it done during other trips to disaster areas: it shut down; it felt no hunger or thirst.

My priority was my work: I listened, took notes and asked questions.

In moments of crises, we all have a need to be acknowledged, to be seen by each other. People affected by the tsunami are no exception; beyond the grim death toll, every catastrophe is personal.

But don’t you cry, people often ask me. Of course, I do, but preferably in private. And I am painfully aware of the temperature of tears – in the tropics, they are burning hot, almost stinging against the skin; in Siberia, ice-cold, sharp little drops on my cheek.

One night, I get home late after talking to a monk at Wat Ban Muang, the Buddhist temple that became a temporarily morgue for more than 1,400 bodies. When I lift my hands to wash my face, I am forced to recoil. The smell of dead bodies is in my skin, my hair and clothes.

I look up and meet my eyes in the mirror. ‘Good Lord, Maude,’ I am thinking, ‘where do all these stories go?’

Sometimes I wake up with a jerk in the middle of the night.

It feels like I have been dreaming something important. If only I could remember what it was, it would change everything. I lay silently in the darkness, trying to get hold of it again.
I never succeed.

My bag is always packed, ready in front of the door. I go to Banda Aceh, where the Red Cross is distributing food, water, shelter and medicine are being distributed to people in need. Amid devastation beyond comprehension, I search for hope and find it with the volunteers from the Palang Merah Indonesia, the national Red Cross society.

“How is it possible,” I ask, “that you, who also lost your homes and families, immediately started to help others?”

“We had no choice,” they answer. “Who else could have done it?”

Wherever the tsunami went – Myanmar and Malaysia, as well as Indonesia and Thailand - this is the story I hear over and over again: how people in the most horrific of circumstances reached out and helped one other.

I travel mostly to Phuket. It feels as if I have permanent pass to the plane – like the automatic access card to my office in the International Federation’s delegation in Bangkok.

“Is it really that awful?” someone asks. “Why don’t you take some time off and go to the beach?”

Four months pass before I go for a swim, even though I normally love the ocean. I simply cannot bring myself to do it.

When I do finally enter the water, on one of the tsunami-stricken beaches, I have to sit there for a long while, my head buried in my knees.

To experience a feeling of inadequacy is part of the Red Cross work. There is always more to be done. Always more people to help.

Sometimes it can seem contradictory that I, and my colleagues, chose voluntarily to leave behind what those we are assisting crave the most: security, a family, a home.

Still, I love my work.

I get out of the water and pack up my things to go to another ceremony for the Swedish tsunami victims.

Today, 15 victims are to be sent back home, some of them children in small, white coffins.

The ceremony is taking place in a corner of the airport, around 100 metres from the beachfront. At five o’clock, a group of around 50 people - families, relatives, friends and members of the Swedish agencies present in Phuket - take our places around the coffins wrapped in blue-and-yellow flags.

Facing each other, we form a square, where it is not possible to turn away from the pain and grief. A sudden breeze from the ocean blends with a sharper smell which nowadays I can detect almost instantly.

In front of me stands a middle-aged man, whose shoulders seem to carry an immense burden. He is holding on to a woman next to him. Is it is wife? I cannot say. Many of those who lost their entire families are turning to each other for support.

The man, clutching a pink teddy bear, tries to fix his gaze somewhere above the coffin. But he cannot stop himself from crying so hard that he shakes with despair. The woman next to him closes her eyes.

She breathes deeply, her stomach rises and falls. It looks as she is forcing life down into her lungs.

The priest says that “we must be grateful… finally these victims have got their names back…” Then he introduces the psalm “Children of the Heavenly Father’.”

For a second, no one moves. We are paralyzed. Then, we sing.

Standing in an airport in southern Thailand, we sing in a foreign tongue about a safe haven for children; the fragile song delivered by our weak voices bounces against the howling engines of the white charter planes just behind.

When the ceremony is over, we hesitate momentarily, not wishing to move on. The fit, suntanned men of the Swedish Rescue Services swiftly but gracefully fold the flags, take out strong red nylon strips to grip the coffins and lift them in wooden cargo crates.

A power tool is produced and one after another, the coffins are sealed.

Slowly, we leave the area, our eyes not wanting to let go of the ocean, where the last rays of sun are reflected and reach into the heart of the ceremony. Almost like an invitation to the mind to set off.

Could it be that all our longing, despite everything, has a direction? That we are not as lonely as we think? One day, I will think that thought through.