Many give up search for tsunami missing

After spending days poring over photographs of corpses, wandering through Thai beach resorts destroyed by the tsunami and searching through hospital wards, Canadians Catherine and David Smith decided to end their search for their two missing friends.

The first turning point came when a nurse said there were no unidentified foreign tourists left in the nearby hospitals. The second came when the Smiths travelled 150km north to the Andaman Beach Resort in Khao Lak, where John and Jackie Knill of North Vancouver had stayed.

The couple’s hotel had been obliterated by the tsunami that struck on December 26, killing 163 000 people in 11 countries.

“That removed most, if not all, of the uncertainty,” David Smith said.

So, joined by two Knill relatives, the Smiths recently held a memorial service on that beach, complete 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 Asia, many of the dead were hastily buried in mass graves, cremated, swept out to sea, or held in morgues for identification, leaving loved ones with few answers and struggling to say their goodbyes. Some of the buried were later exhumed to take DNA samples in an effort to identify them.

But nearly three weeks after the disaster, even the most persistent are giving up their search for the thousands of people who disappeared during the tsunami, especially in hard-hit countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Many foreigners had little choice but to return to their jobs and responsibilities at home after days of searching, leaving the disaster far behind.

For grieving local residents, the memories of their missing loved ones could be far more overwhelming, since they remain surrounded by death and destruction in a rebuilding process 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 in the United States 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 a telephone interview.

In Thai beach resorts such as Phuket, the relief centres, 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 for their missing children.

“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 being unable to perform what they see as their primary responsibility in life: protecting their children.

In Banda Aceh, the hardest-hit area of Indonesia, few people seemed to hold out much hope that the missing would be found alive.

At a souvenir shop turned information centre, 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 disaster, about 800 people a day were coming in searching for clues to their missing relatives’ whereabouts, said Asyraf (29), a relief worker there. Now there are about 100 a day, he said.

Of the 10 000 people who had come to the office for help finding relatives, only about 70 succeeded, said Asyraf, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

Hope was dwindling quickly because thousands of tsunami victims were buried in mass graves and will never be identified. Most Indonesians believe that any survivors would have contacted their families by now.

“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, a mostly Buddhist country, many local people appeared to accept that their loved ones were lost, believing the disaster was fate. But half of the 5 300 people who died here are believed to be foreigners, and some relatives had a very hard time giving up their search.

Consider Carl Michael Bergman (40), of Sweden, whose country suffered the most deaths among Western nations with 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 three-year-old son, Nils, was on an elephant ride nearby and also survived.

Bergman’s 37-year-old wife, Cecilia, and their 18-month-old son Hannes were swept away by the killer wave outside their bungalow near the beach. She remains missing, but Hannes was rescued by local people.

After talking to witnesses and extensively searching 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 January 6, just hours before he was scheduled to leave from Phuket to Bangkok and to fly 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 nearby, 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 from his vacation in Thailand.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Alisa Tang in Thailand, Dilip Ganguly in Sri Lanka, and Beth Gardiner in Indonesia contributed to this report.

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