• Directory of Taiwan

One year later, tsunami scars still mark the land, people

One year later, tsunami scars still mark the land, people

"Every time I come here, I ask my friend, 'Where are you? Where did you go?'" Pakasit Paijitsattaya says as he looks into the hole where his office once stood.

One year ago, just before 9 a.m., his friend Raw Yaa called him from the tour company office, telling him to pick up a group at one of the seaside resorts in Khao Lak, near Phuket, Thailand, and guide it into the nearby mountains of Khao National Park for a tour.

When Paijitsattaya and the group returned two hours later, it was to an utterly different world.

A wall of water had crashed across the island, sweeping away anyone and anything in its path. Many of the tourists in Paijitsattaya's group lost family and friends they had left at their hotel.

About 220,000 people in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean were killed.

And Paijitsattaya - Daeng, as he's known - lost Raw Yaa, who stayed in the office that day to answer the phones.

Daeng recently stood under a leaden sky, looking at the scarred earth where sea grass was beginning to soften the edges. A hundred yards away, the sea lapped at the shoreline - deserted except for the ghosts.

Eight months later in early October, the ghosts remained palpable. They seemed to lurk in the debris still strewn across Phuket's beaches - a child's flip-flop in a tangle of heavy rope, tarpaper, uprooted coral. A 4-by-4 stuck out like a dagger thrown at the beach, the only hint that a boat was buried beneath the sand.

The survivors live among bizarre tableaus, such as cars on rooftops and a ferry boat on a sidewalk. And storefronts now bear signs for relief organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, the International Red Cross and Oxfam International, which are trying to help them put their lives back together.

About 1.8 million people were left homeless by the tsunami. Only one-fifth of them will be in permanent housing by the end of the year, according to a recent report by Oxfam. In the three worst-affected countries - India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka - more than 300,000 homes are needed, Oxfam says.

"The progress already made has been impressive, but there's much more to do," said Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam's director. "The reality is that rebuilding at speed involves a difficult balancing act. People want houses quickly, but they also want to be consulted and the houses to be of top quality. In some cases, the rebuilding process may actually have been too fast."

In the Indonesian territory of Aceh, one of the worst-hit areas, land that was home to more than 120,000 people is now permanently submerged.

Governments have been slow to set aside land for rebuilding, according to the Oxfam report. Lack of government clarity about whether to set aside coastal buffer zones or how big they should be has delayed also rebuilding.

"The pace of recovery has not been smooth," observed another report, this one by InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian non-governmental organizations.

"Delays in reaching some key policy decisions, particularly regarding land use in the most affected areas, inhibited permanent resettlement activities."

Land disputes are common, because the tsunami destroyed many boundary markers and displaced farmers and families who had no official evidence of ownership of the land they had lived on for generations. Unscrupulous property developers are said to have seized valuable coastal land in Sri Lanka and Thailand to build new resorts.

The rebuilding efforts also have favored wealth and influence. Thus, Khao Lak's five-star hotels are back, while many of the poor still live in tents or with family.

Next door to a Habitat for Humanity office in Khao Lak, Paijitsattaya recognizes a young woman standing in a pharmacy doorway with her baby. She says her sister owned the pharmacy and that she had come to work with her. The woman and her husband had planned to open a dive shop, but they lost everything in the tsunami.

Well, almost everything. Pregnant at the time, the woman heard the wave coming and ran to a church. As the water rose, she climbed out onto the roof. When it subsided, she began to walk home - then a second wave hit. The only high ground was a nearby tree, which she climbed without hesitation. She was, after all, climbing for two.

The baby's expression is all smiles. For her, there is only the future. For survivors, like Paijitsattaya, the specters of the past are always nearby.

The sun sets; Paijitsattaya turns away from the beach and heads for home. Driving through Khao Lak, he slams on the brakes and pulls over. Suddenly, a smiling face is peering in his window. Paijitsattaya gets out and they embrace.

It's Kai, another old friend - one he had thought was dead. A fellow tour guide, Kai had been on a boat with a group when the tsunami struck. Paijitsattaya had tried to contact him after the disaster, but Kai had lost his phone along with his home, his job and all his other possessions. With no word, his old friends assumed he was dead.

Now he's back.


Paijitsattaya invites Kai to a meeting of tour operators the next day to tell his story.

Until the film is developed and the meeting attended, it's hard to trust one's eyes. Here, in the wake of the tsunami, it is still too easy to believe in ghosts.