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In Thailand, Baptists bury the dead while giving aid and hope to survivors of tsunami

KRABI, Thailand (BP)–Just a small cement building, Krabi Baptist Church is still adorned with colorful lights and tinseled decorations from Christmas. A large banner proclaiming “Joy to the World” hangs in the baptistery.

Outside in the parking lot, several of the laymen are busy sawing and nailing together rectangular pieces of plywood. Rough coffins are taking shape.

“We are doing what we can,” says the church’s pastor, Bro. Dusit. He explained that the mayor of Krabi asked local businesses and organizations to build larger coffins. The standard local coffins are not big enough to hold some of the larger-framed foreigners killed the day after Christmas by one of the worse natural disasters ever seen.

In Thailand, the body count continues to rise in the coastal areas decimated by a fierce tsunami triggered by the cataclysmic earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, on Dec. 26.

While much of the world’s attention focuses on the damage and death at world-famous tourist destinations such as Thailand’s popular Phuket Island, Southern Baptist relief workers have begun to mobilize to reach the areas virtually untouched by even the local government.

The coordinator for Southern Baptist disaster relief in Asia, Pat Julian,* said that while the tragedy is terrible everywhere, those areas which bring the most capital are the ones which will be rebuilt the fastest.

“The resort areas and tourist spots will be back up and running in no time. The government will protect their capital base -– it’s just a fact,” he says. “There are other people, though, that need more help; other areas have sustained great damage but no one has been out to assess the losses and needs.”

Meeting human needs as an extension of the hands of Christ means that the assistance needs to produce eternal repercussions, Julian emphasized. The best results are reached through a degree of patience. After the first wave of aid agencies has come and gone, it is much easier to see exactly what the true, lasting needs will be for the people and communities affected by tragedy, he said.

“We are going to the devastated villages and asking the people what their needs are instead of making assumptions and throwing things at them that they can’t use,” he says.

After meeting with local government officials on Dec. 29, Julian and Dusit traveled several hours to assess damage on the outer coast of Lanta Island. Ringed by beach resorts, Lanta also is home to a largely overlooked Muslim people group known as the Sea Gypsies.

Located in small communities along the coast, the Sea Gypsies fish for food from longboats and live on stilted houses directly on the normally calm beach.

On Dec. 26, however, most of the villagers fled to the surrounding hills as 20-foot waves shattered their lives. Amazingly, many of the wooden houses are still standing. Below the houses, however, shattered boats litter the beach.

“We can’t repair any of them,” says a villager who was brave enough to come down the mountain. Most of the 90-plus families refuse to come back down to the village –- out of fear of more tsunamis. The villager said he watched the waves completely envelop his stilted house –- more than 20 feet high.

While there was not a great loss of life, the villagers’ very livelihood is gone.

“We eat fish,” says Maka, another villager. “Without boats, we can’t fish. Without fish, we don’t eat.”

Following the tsunami, government aid consisted of small first-aid kits and a one-time, 2-kilogram provision of rice.

“This is a phenomenal opportunity and an open door for the local church to make a difference in these people’s lives,” Julian says.

Even before the tragedy of Dec. 26, the members of Krabi Baptist Church had been praying for a way to make inroads with the Sea Gypsies.

Within a week, several tons of rice and replacement fishing nets will arrive at the coastal village -– relief aid made possible by the generosity of Southern Baptists, and given through the channels of the local church.

“[Pastor Dusit] knows this area better than anyone,” Julian says. “We want to give supplies to the church to facilitate aid to these areas so people will understand that this aid is coming from the ministry and care of Thai Baptists.”

Scenes of tragedy

Krabi, a small town still balancing in the transition between sleepy fishing village and full-blown tourist haven, has become the central sorting station for the bodies of foreign tourists killed in the tragedy. Dozens of resorts -– both plush and rustic -– are a short distance from Krabi. The scene takes on an element of the surreal as workers and volunteers work in an almost mechanical, trance-like state.

Schools and Buddhist temples have been transformed into morgues. Rows of bodies lay shielded from the tropical heat by tents. Proper body bags are nowhere to be seen – corpses are wrapped in plastic and tied at both ends. The numbered bags are swollen from the heat.

An announcement over a loudspeaker breaks the hushed silence. Rescue workers digging at the idyllic resort island of Koh Phi Phi have found another 400 bodies. One hundred would be arriving at the temple within an hour.

Pictures of the corpses are posted on bulletin boards in the parking lot. Family members, friends, traveling companions and co-workers looking for the dead peer at the pictures, looking past the ghastly faces of death and rapid decomposition to try to identify the missing.

Nakamura, a tall, thin Japanese man, breathed behind a surgical mask as Thai workers opened a body bag in front of him. The corpse was a child. A tour operator based in Singapore, Nakamura had flown down to Krabi to help a Singaporean family find their daughter. “It was her,” he nodded grimly.

If a body is identified, only then will the bag be lifted into the rough coffin and taken away -– either to be cremated locally or shipped to a home country.

“I would say it’s very likely that most of the foreign dead will go into mass graves,” says Julian, who surveyed the makeshift morgue as part of his assessment.

For the majority, death occurred at the beach, and people were not carrying their passports. By the time relatives and friends arrive to locate their loved ones, it will be too difficult in these conditions to identify the body, he said.

Next steps

In Thailand, which until the tsunami was a country gaining notoriety for growing religious violence between the Muslim minority in the south and the Buddhist majority, the government has called for Dec. 31 to be a national day of prayer. Many New Year’s Eve celebrations have been cancelled or turned into fund-raisers for the victims of the devastation.

Officials and relief organizations in Thailand, where the number of dead has topped 2,000, are beginning to voice the understanding that the death toll will rise significantly from post-disaster disease due to contaminated water supplies -– the primary carrier of cholera.

At the makeshift morgue, the number of bodies continues to grow. “If they put all the dead bodies here [in Krabi], they won’t be able to handle it. They’ll have a secondary disaster on their hands,” Julian observes. “They need a lot of prayer.”

“As Christians, we need to let every opportunity be one to show the love of God for those affected [by this tragedy],” says Dusit. “As a native of Krabi, I feel so thankful and grateful for those who share this concern. There are only a few churches here. Practically, we have very limited resources. But when we all come together we can become much more powerful and effective.”

Southern Baptists can help by sending financial gifts for aid through the IMB general relief fund. Send gifts designated “Asia Earthquake Disaster Relief” to the International Mission Board, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230 (to give online, go to the International Mission Board’s website, www.imb.org, and click on “Give Now” in the box highlighting this story). All funds given will go directly and fully to relief efforts.
*Name changed for security reasons

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  • BP Asia Bureau Staff