WASHINGTON – Six months after the tsunami pounded the shores of Southeast Asia,the coastal communities it crippled are slowly beginning to regain their pace,focusing more on rebuilding than on survival.
Thailand officials are calling for tourists to revisit its rewritten shorelines,saying the dollars that once poured in will fuel reconstruction there.
In the Aceh province of Indonesia,which suffered 127,000 deaths and more than $5.5 billion in damages,relief organizations and governments are rebuilding schools – an indication,they say,that the worst is over.
Resurrecting the education facilities beaten,or in some cases erased,by the Dec. 26 wave will take a long time. Books and other supplies in the schools were swept to sea,along with thousands of the teachers and students who populated them.
Even if schools were rebuilt where they stood before,finding students and teachers to fill them all would be impossible,said Harris Iskandar,education and cultural attaché for the Indonesian Embassy here.
Iskandar said Aceh had 44,511 teachers before the tsunami,and now there are only 35,571 – a drop of nearly 9,000. He said about 20,000 school-aged children died,out of 953,389.
Many of the schools were washed away,and some that remain are too unstable from the earthquake that came before the wave,leaving 2,112 out of 5,731 schools closed.
Just as the tsunami redrew the coast in Aceh,Iskandar said it erased property lines along with most other remnants of ownership. The last time he visited,in early April,he said people had staked flags in the ground,trying to remap the city and their places in it.
“They were saying,‘This is my land. I am still alive,’” Iskandar said.
He said the Indonesian government isn't much help because the office that housed land rights is gone. “It is hard to know even where the schools will go,” he said.
Mike Kiernan,who went to Aceh for four weeks in February in his role as spokesman for Save the Children,said getting the children back to school is crucial.
“With their houses gone – and many children say their clothes were also washed away – their parents injured or struggling to rebuild an income,going to school for these children is an important reminder that life will be normal again,that the tsunami didn't take everything,” Kiernan said.
Kiernan said Save the Children has helped to clean and repair 15 schools and provided 210 schools in Aceh with supplies. Sekolah Banda Sakty Elementary School in the center of Lhoksumawe has 425 students and has separate buildings for each grade level,he said.
“The mud is gone from the walls,the desks are back in neat rows. The boys wear dark trousers,white shirts and black caps. The girls are dressed in white,” Kiernan said. Many of the students there still live nearby in barracks or pitched tents because their homes were washed away. He said schools provide a retreat from that reality.
Iskandar recalled a different picture when he visited Aceh. He recalled students huddled in temporary classrooms with temperatures so high the children became restless and found it difficult to concentrate.
Thailand,with 5,395 dead and 2,906 still missing,is also dealing with rebuilding the coastal education systems shattered by the tsunami. But like in Indonesia,the process is slow.
“The challenge is not only to rebuild the infrastructure,but providing teachers and materials too,” said Chirachai Punkrasin,deputy chief of mission at the Royal Embassy of Thailand,at a press conference last week. “Many of the villages are isolated,and they are far away from the population. They tend to fall through the cracks.”
The tsunami orphaned more than 1,200 children in Thailand,and Punkrasin said getting them back to school is important to create some sort of stability.
Building schools for these children was the focus of a Thai-themed event Wednesday night attended by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand,other Thai dignitaries and more than 440 people,including several members of Congress. The United States-Thailand Amity Charity Foundation,an organization forged to promote a relationship between the two countries,orchestrated the event.
The $250-a-plate dinner was a fusion of Thai and American tastes from top Thai chefs flown in for the night.
“We have to put things back to the way it was,” Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn said in an interview at the gala.
Putting things back the way they were will not be easy.
The tsunami that hit Thailand collapsed its lucrative tourist industry,and damages total about $692 million.
Petra Nemcova,the Czech model nearly swallowed by the tsunami Phuket,the Thai beach resort,and a guest at the gala,said the disaster changed her life and drew her
closer to the people of Thailand.
“I felt like a newborn trying to walk again,” said Nemcova,26,who has been the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover girl. Her pelvis was shattered. Her right arm is still fresh with the scars from tumbling in the wave and debris.
A gaudy black and white beaded necklace was an awkward adornment to the slinky,low-cut,gold dress she wore. Nemcova said the necklace was a gift from a boy lying in the next hospital bed. She said she rarely takes the necklace off. “This boy had so little,and he was giving me the last thing he had,” she said.
Nemcova,who has been raising money to rebuild the area,traveled to Thailand two weeks ago to visit the areas ravaged by the wave. She said she cannot forget the still-numb faces of the children there.
“The look in their eyes when you are talking to them is unsettling. It's like they are looking right through you,” Nemcova said. “Yes,we need to rebuild their homes and their schools,but we also need to rebuild their hope.”