Phuket (AsiaNews) Twelve months after the devastation wreaked by the tsunami, Thai people can say their lives have returned to normal: fishermen go to sea, children attend school and many families have permanent housing. But the struggle is not over yet.
The Church and volunteers of international NGOs encourage survivors to undertake activities geared towards self-sufficiency; entire villages have had to move and change their way of life. People are afraid despite new alarm systems put in place; psychological support continues to be an urgent need and experts say this will be true for many years to come.
People involved in relief aid and local Catholic Church representatives say that a year after the tsunami, people's faith has become tangibly stronger, as has collaboration between religious communities. Fr John Bosco Suwat Luangsaard, director of the Phanggnga pastoral centre said the disaster of 26 December 2004 did not make a dent in the faith of Catholics.
A family in Taplamu said: "We lost everything in the tsunami, our home and the boat which we used to work on, we had nothing left except faith in Our Lady. After the wave, we sat down and started to say the rosary and the sisters and priests who later helped us found us like this." However, in the emergency, the Church swiftly turned to help all, without religion-based distinctions. "I am a priest for everyone," said Fr Luangsaard. "The Catholic Church reaches out to all society."
Mgr Joseph Prathan Sridarunsil, bishop of Surat Thani, the diocese hardest hit, said "aid for the victims of Phuket province started on 26 December and has continued until today thanks to collaboration from the Thai Bishops' Conference with Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Foundation of Surat Thani." According to information supplied by the bishop, more than 1,600 families in Phuket and in Ranong province (around 80% of the estimated total) have received aid as planned. "We hope to finish around February 2006," he added.
Even government-financed reconstruction seems to have yielded good results. Maitri Chongkraichuck, project director at the government coordination centre in Phangnga, said "the State gave the village of Baan Namkhem, a loan to build 106 houses." The residents discussed the project for their homes and constructed them with the supervision of government experts." Sathien Phetkleang, a village head, said: "The government has also given each one 100 US dollars to launch some activity." Many vocational training centres are operational. Housewives are learning how to sew, produce batik materials and make bamboo chests. The same initiative has been undertaken by the Church in Krabi.
The nuncio, Mgr Salvatore Pennacchio, recently presided over an open-air mass for the opening of one such centre for tsunami victims. Women attending the centre will be taught how to make artificial flowers, produce coconut oil and make shrimp paste for cooking. In Phuket, Fr Bancha Apichartvorakul, director of the pastoral centre, said Catholic aid is being pumped into projects for children's education, construction of boats and supply of fishing equipment.
The bishop of Surat Thani said the "main objective of intervention now is to help residents to earn their living in dignity, beyond membership of religious or ethical groups." The bishop said brotherhood among Buddhist, Catholic and Muslim volunteers is what most impressed survivors in many villages, especially in the sub-district of Bangwan. Family ties have also been strengthened, as many people who worked in tourist resorts destroyed by the seaquake have returned to the fold. Mgr Sridarunsil said: "Now they work the land in their places of origin."
The psychological damage is perhaps the hardest to repair. In Phangnga district, the village head, Sathien Phetkleang, said a Tsunami alarm system has been put in place, but residents "don't trust it". Nor do they trust the homes given them by the government. "They would like more solid houses and so they rent these to Burmese in the area and search for lodging further in the interior safer places". Mrs Kawnmuang, a teacher from Phuket, said she always keeps her car parked along the beach in Patong, "to be ready to escape if the wave comes."