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Project Manager Nitinai Sornsongkram with containers.

The Man Who Waits in the Cool Container

Wednesday, December 19, 2007
THE BIGGEST and most heartening tsunami story of the year has gone unwritten, until now.

And here it is: This year, 55 victims of the big wave of 2004 have been identified and returned to relatives.

Another 32 have been identified and are awaiting collection at the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification centre in Baan Maruan, Phang Nga.

With the third anniversary of the deadly tsunami coming on December 26, efforts are being redoubled to reunite these victims with their families.

The identification of thousands of nameless tourists and locals who died in the water on that unforgettable day has been the most remarkable saga in the history of forensic science.

International police teams and Thai police worked tirelessly to identify the victims, who came from 45 countries.

About 3000 of the 5400 bodies of victims of the tsunami in Thailand were unidentified.

Today, thanks to detective work on a massive scale around the world, that number has been reduced to 380.

But doubts remain about the future of the work. And in some cases, success has become tinged with sadness.

In one of a handful of cooled containers at Bang Maruan lies a man with a name, a man from Nepal who died on Boxing Day in 2004 in the swirling Andaman Sea.

On January 18, 2006, the man from Nepal was nameless no longer. He was given back his identitity. His relatives in Nepal were told of his fate.

Since then, for almost two years now, he has been waiting for someone to come.

The Bang Maruan Project Manager, Nitinai Sornsongkram, says Nepalese embassy officials werer notified as part of the normal ID process.

But they reported back that the family was too poor to come to collect the body. So the man lies and waits.

Three other Nepalese who died in the tsunami, including a three-year-old boy and a 37-year-old woman, have been restored to relatives.

So have hundreds of others from all over the world, including more than 530 from Germany and a similar number from Sweden, the two hardest-hit countries except for Thailand.

Khun Nitinai, an engineer, has been part of the process of returning the bodies since the identification centre and the nearby cemetery opened.

He senses now that officials in Bangkok have lost interest in the process of tsunami identification.

He seldom gets to greet visitors from the capital. Not many ever come to look at the project first-hand these days.

But he believes that the reunion process shouldn't be allowed to fade away.

''There are still families who do not know what happened to their relatives,'' he said.

''No matter how long it takes, it's important that people find their loved ones.''

Most of the remaining unidentified victims are thought to be poor Burmese or Thai laborers or their families.

Their identities are harder to establish because of the lack of dental and health records or access to comparative DNA.

Those factors enabled virtually all the tourist victims, who amounted to about 2600 in total, to be named.

Tireless officials from several NGOs continue their work, even deep within Thailand's troubled neighbor, Burma, to try to contact relatives of the remaining unidentified victims.

The reward for these volunteer detectives comes when each successive case is closed.

There is mounting apprehension, however, that Thai authorities will close down the project early in 2008 because of its cost.

Meanwhile, all along the Andaman Coast on December 26, special memorial events will be held to mark Thailand's largest natural disaster and remember its victims.

On that day, perhaps someone, somewhere will pause to recall the Nepalese man who waits in the cooled container.

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Friday August 7, 2020
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