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Identifying tsunami victims, a year later

Nearly a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept away her parents, Suwanee Maliwan has at last found her father.
Thai girl cries after seeing the remains of her father's body at a morgue in Phang Nga province
Suwanee Maliwan, left,14, cries after seeing the remains of her father's body at the Bang Maruan morgue south of Bangkok nearly a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept away her parents.Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Nearly a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept away her parents, Suwanee Maliwan has at last found her father.

“The tsunami was the worst thing in my life,” a tearful Suwanee said after collecting the body of 40-year-old Udom, 11 months to the day the giant waves struck her fishing village, Ban Nam Khem, killing hundreds.

Her mother, Preeda, was identified in September by foreign experts involved in the world’s biggest forensics investigation on the Thai resort island of Phuket.

“If I could wish for something. I would wish to have my mother and father back,” said the shy 14-year-old, who also lost her grandmother and two aunts in the calamity that killed 5,395 people and left 2,817 missing in southern Thailand.

The bodies were identified by international forensic teams using fingerprints, dental records and DNA to put names to some 2,900 bodies since the Dec. 26 tragedy.

“Sometimes I think of the families and I tell myself that it allows me to help the families,” said Karin Leveder, a fingerprint officer with the French national police, who has spent two months at the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Center (TTVI) on Phuket.

“It’s very satisfying to help make the match.”

Thai authorities say the operation has cost $72 million so far, and involved labs in China, Sweden and Britain, as well as the International Commission on Missing Persons in Sarajevo, which has expertise in obtaining DNA from low-quality samples.

The DVI center is now being moved to Bangkok where Thai experts will take over the job of identifying some 800 remaining bodies over the next year.

But for bereaved families still waiting for a body, the move from Phuket is worrying.

Foreign pullout
With some 500 remaining corpses believed to be of Thai origin, family members fear foreign governments are pulling out after their nationals are identified.

Jiraporn Paopat fears her 6-year-old son Chanawan, lost when 23-foot waves hit Ban Nam Khem, will never be found.

Her infant son, Puthitorn, was found dead just days after the disaster. But with no dental records, fingerprints or DNA, authorities have yet to find Chanawan.

She cannot bear to hang pictures of them on the wall. Doctors gave her Valium to sleep.

“I’m worried that we’ll never find the body. What I want now is for my son to tell me in my dreams where his body is.”

Howard Way, the identification coordinator at the TTVI Center, said some foreign experts will stay for as long as they are needed after the handover to Thai police.

Officials with the TTVI team said about 25 experts, including staff from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, will remain in Thailand until February when their presence will be reviewed.

Despite the painstaking work, mistakes have been made.

In early December, Thai officials discovered that the bodies of at least eight tsunami victims, both Thai and foreign, had been misidentified and released to the wrong families.

They say the blunders happened in the immediate aftermath of the disaster when grieving relatives were allowed to visually identify their loved ones, even though bodies had decomposed beyond recognition.

Can't sleep by the sea
Suwanee and her 61-year-old grandfather, Hin Temna, cremated the bodies of her father and a 34-year-old aunt, Bussara, last month at a Buddhist temple in Ban Nam Khem, where Suwanee’s family lived.

After being too scared to sleep near the sea, she and her grandfather have moved into a one-room home in Ban Nam Khem built by the Thai government.

Hin Temna, a fisherman who says he will never return to the sea, now works as a security guard for 175 baht ($4.25) day.

“The big giant swept everything away -- my house, my wife, my daughters -- but I survived,” he said. “I have nothing left.”

Suwanee and her grandfather received 40,000 baht from the government in compensation for the death of her parents, and an additional 20,000 baht for property damaged by the waves.

A special Thai army scholarship program will also help Suwanee, who hopes to become a doctor as her father had wished.

But her mind is stuck on the Sunday morning her parents were caught by the massive waves as they returned from a fishing trip. Suwanee was watching from the shoreline and only managed to escape by fleeing on the back of a friend’s motorbike.

“Sometimes I cry. I don’t feel like I want to do anything. But then I tell myself I still have a brother,” she said.