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A wrecked villa on the Phang Nga beachfront.

Water and Fire: A Tsunami Reunion

Sunday, December 16, 2007
THE GREATEST detective story ever told has developed a few twists as its final chapter unfolds. The ending may not be an entirely happy one. But at least it will be an ending.

Almost three years after the deadly Asian tsunami, families are still coming to a small cemetery in the Thai province of Phang Nga, north of the resort island of Phuket, to claim the bodies of victims. Most of them are Burmese.

As terrible as the tsunami toll became, with about 230,000 dead and many more affected, it was matched by an unprecedented wave of global generosity, and in Thailand with a scientific detective saga that all too briefly united more than 30 countries.

It would be trite to say that after so much pain and suffering, it's now all water under the bridge. So many tales have been told of luckless individuals, caught in the wrong place as the water swept over them.

Yet in so many ways, the tsunami defied expectations. Instead of carrying victims out to sea, the post-wave swirl carried most into a watery carousel along the coast, often bobbing stripped tourists to places where shantytowns had been, and naked, dead laborers or their families into the remains of ritzy resorts.

With many of their clothes and possessions removed or damaged, how to tell one from the other, the well-off visitor from the impoverished local?

The first chapter in the detective story began with 3700 of the 5400 victims lacking identities. The task of giving all of them names was so immense that one of the early foreign police to arrive, an Australian, said that it was like "eating an elephant."

How do you eat an elephant? "One mouthful at a time," said the policeman. That's a distasteful metaphor, especially to Thais who revere the elephant as a national symbol, but it is appropriate in
terms of scale.

On good days, as the Case of the Wicked Wave unfolded, as many as 50 victims would have their identities restored by a demanding international approvals committee.

A round of applause would break out to mark the solution of cases that required ingenuity or a stroke of brilliant detective work. "Take Them Home" became the mantra.

These days, the identification process, now left solely in Thai hands with the international teams long departed, is swirling with allegations of corruption and unnecessary delays in sending samples
for DNA testing.

Those scandals would horrify the hundreds of police from more than 30 countries who came to help in the tsunami's aftermath. Yet thankfully, the elephant is now a whole lot smaller.

TODAY a minivan enters the village of Baan Maruan, turns the corner at the Seven-11 store, and arrives at the cemetery just as the cremator emerges from cleaning out the narrow chamber where the bodies will burn.

Fourteen relatives, friends and helpers emerge from the van and hope to be reunited soon with four family members.

Most of the visitors have come from an island off the nearby fishing village of Nam Khem (Salt Water). In Nam Khem and on the island, about 800 people perished that 2004 Boxing Day.

Almost all today's van passengers are Burmese, migrant workers who are, paradoxically, rebuilding the resorts where the wealthy tourists died.

New resorts are being erected amid an even greater irony: the increased awareness of Phuket and its neighbors as tourist destinations, an awareness created almost entirely by the tsunami.

It's not a promotional tool the average marketing executive would suggest, but the big wave put Phuket and Khao Lak on the map. The Andaman beaches are once again laced with bodies.

Fortunately, this time they are sun-worshipers, very much alive, and packing hefty wallets.

Meanwhile, the life-and-death tsunami epic continues to provide surprises, mixed with eternal certainties.

While the international forensic teams determined that all bodies should be treated equally, it is the poor, in death as in life, who struggle to makes ends meet.

The recovery rate and the number of identifications has exceeded expectations. It is a remarkable achievement for forensic science, deserving wider acknowledgment.

Of 542 Swedish victims, the largest group among the tourist dead, only 15 remain missing. Of 535 Germans, only 13 are whereabouts unknown.

Thanks to dental records, fingerprints, DNA tests, tattoos, operation scars and especially to diligent co-operative detective work, the results have been astonishing. Of the original 3700 nameless bodies, only 340 remain to be identified.

Still to come, though, is that unwritten final chapter.

The remaining victims have been buried in metal coffins within concrete containers in a special cemetery at Baan Maruan, awaiting the day when they might be named, dug up, and delivered to relatives.

About 50 more victims have their identities back and are being stored above ground, in cooled shipping containers, awaiting collection.

Before the foreign teams were withdrawn -- for budgetary reasons, against their will -- embassy officials from Bangkok, mortuary representatives and respective national police often gathered in
sizable groups to assist in the final stages of body identification, sometimes departing for the airport in a convoy of cars.

Less well-off victims have continued to be collected by one or two relatives, perhaps in a pickup truck. Sometimes, instead of being take home, they are carried for convenience to a local Buddhist temple for a ceremony and cremation.

Between rich and poor lies a wealth of difference. Today's arriving Burmese migrant families are too poor even to have a means of transporting a body to the local wat.

A woman in mauve has come all the way south, from inside Burma, to be reunited briefly with her brother. A young man has come to collect his niece: five of her family died. The niece is the last one to be recovered.

A second woman has come to collect a sister. She still has two nieces, daughters of the sister, among the missing. A woman grasping a Hello Kitty handbag has also come to collect a relative.

There is one final hurdle, a pile of paperwork. Before the bodies can be claimed, the relatives have to prove prove their own identities, beyond doubt. One mistake and the whole question of identity is in jeopardy.

So, after a long period at the cemetery and a trip to the local administrative centre, three of the families return with the correct paperwork. The woman with the Hello Kitty handbag has failed, because of a change of address, to prove her identity beyond doubt.

Three bodies are brought from the containers, with one tipping from a trolley and falling to the ground as it is wheeled over rough terrain. The ID tags are checked, and one body has to be returned and replaced with the right body.

Some of the relatives venture forward to be photographed alongside the bodybags on their trolleys, as close as they will get now to their loved ones. There are no tears. Two and a half sad years have already passed.

This reporter's car is commandeered to pick up a monk, in pouring rain, from the local temple. The woman with the Hello Kitty handbag stays to mourn the three victims in a simple hall, where the monk conducts heartfelt prayers.

On the other side of the compound, the cremator ties a white string around the three bodies, linking the two on trolleys with the third, already in the chamber. When the monk finishes, the string is drawn back and the burning begins.

Inside the cool containers, awaiting collection, is a man from Nepal whose name was discovered more than a year ago. His relatives know he is there. They are not coming.

There are others, too, who have been named but may never be claimed.

The tsunami grief that once united the world continues. But these days, only a handful of poor and a few heroic helpers are there to mourn.

Additional reporting: Maewmong

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