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The trawlers in Nam Khem, where a 24-hour watch is mounted

Village Where Tsunami Holds No Fear Now

Wednesday, December 29, 2010
VILLAGERS in Nam Khem, north of Phuket, are not taking any special precautions despite a fortuneteller's prediction that a second tsunami will come tomorrow.

Why not? Because they already take every possible precaution that they can.

Not only does the village have a direct hotline to the National Disaster Warning Centre in Bangkok, villagers also take turns to mount eight-hour shifts around the clock in a wave watch, 365 days and nights a year.

The reason? More than 800 people died in the fishing village when the big wave swept through on December 26, 2004. Nam Khem (which means salt water) was a particular sad place after the tsunami.

I remember interviewing a woman who had left the village that morning with her husband, to do the weekly shopping in the big town nearby.

She returned to discover her parents had been killed. And so had her two daughters, aged just one and two.

Desperate to find solace amid the grief, she converted to Christianity after being told that her babes were ''safe in the arms of a loving God.''

It was what she needed to hear. Others also converted as they searched for a reason for their pain.

A rabbi was once asked to define happiness. ''First the grandfather dies, then the father dies, then the son dies,'' the rabbi said.

Within a personal disaster that wipes out two generations at once, it is possible to understand the rabbi's wise and profound definition of happiness.

After the tsunami, with Nam Khem rapidly rebuilt just as it was by the army, villagers returned, but peace of mind did not.

Every so often at night, a villager would awaken from a nightmare and cry out: ''Another wave is coming! Another wave is coming!''

In darkness and despair, with no way of knowing the truth, the villagers all fled to higher ground, time and time again.

These days Nam Khem is calmer but constantly prepared for the worst, and an object lesson for resorts that have been rebuilt in the danger zone all along the Andaman coast.

Nam Khem has the finest memorials to the victims along the coast, lovingly preserved in ways that some other monuments are not.

There are also two fishing trawlers that have been made the focal point of a local park. One trawler carved through the village in the wave, demolishing houses and, so it is reckoned, killing 100 people along the way.

The other trawler, with a crewman on board, missed every building, and the crewman was able to reach down and rescue one villager by pulling him on board as the boat swept past.

Such is the yin and yang of a tsunami.

For years, on Phuket and along the Andaman, residents fell into two categories: those who did not wish to remember the tsunami, and those who simply could not forget it.

Now, more than six years on, officials along the coast accept that the villagers of Nam Khem got it right. The tsunami and the ever-present possibility of another one must not be forgotten.

Almost 5400 people died on Phuket and along Thailand's Andaman coast in the tsunami, about half of them expat tourists.
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