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Monday, December 27

Tsunami : Aftermath

More news from Greg. I'm proud of him. Day 2 : Hell I wake up and go to school, hoping it’s cancelled. It is. We’re off to the Governor’s Palace to provide assistance to foreign nationals. I’m thinking, “What a bore.” because for me, this whole incident is "no big deal." I go to the Police Radio Station to see if they need to make announcements in English but there’s already a Thai there that speaks very good English. Off to the Governor’s Palace, basically a lot of government offices. We’re given little tags that say “translator,” never mind the fact none of us speak Thai. I write “French/English” on mine, thinking at least that means I can translate something into something, then I realize writing “Français” might be a little more helpful. Ah, the French. The Honorary Consul is sitting behind a desk, his checkered shirt opened on a wife beater. He’s thinking, “Why me?” There’s another tall guy flown down from Bangkok, the police attaché, and he’s actually putting the Consul’s feelings into words. “Look at this crap. This is the last time I help out.” Help doing what? Actually, that’s the question I’m asking myself. I decide to help out an Austrian. He’s badly beat up by his tumble in the waves. He’s lost his wife. That suddenly strikes me as a very, very sad thing, to lose one’s wife. And I’m fighting really hard not to cry. I’m here to help, he’s not crying, so if I cry, that’s really lousy. I get him to some building where he fills in a ridiculous half-piece of paper with his wife’s name and where he lost her. Then I tell him to sit and wait. The French are starting to pour in and nobody’s taking care of them. These people have no money, no passports, no luggage. Their clothes are soaked in blood and mud. They are often badly hurt and very roughly patched up. They have almost all lost a brother, a husband, a wife, a child, a parent. At first I feel like crying when I hear their stories but no one is crying, no one is wailing. Everybody is stone faced. Soon, I become stone faced as well. I want to know what they have left, I explain the procedure to get documentation, I make a list of the missing, and I pester our two officials continually. At one point, the consul hands his phone to me as he speaks to the embassy in Bangkok. “You talk to them. You ask them.” I decline, I've got work to do. The police attaché is actually taking pictures. “But they don’t realize the mess this is in Bangkok,” he says. “I’ll show them we need more people.” How many diplomats taking pictures does it take to evacuate hundreds of wounded families? None, just let the expats handle it (honorary consul not included). I stayed twelve hours back there and the human suffering I witnessed is beyond anything I have ever seen. I will never know if some of these people found the people they lost. Some did, though. A homosexual (pacsé et tout) got a call from his boyfriend who managed to e-mail France that he was alive, stranded on some island. The wave in Phi Phi tore straight through the island. They had to beg Thai fishermen in boats that had miraculously not been overturned to give them rides back to land. The people on the boats were too exhausted to pull anymore out of the water. The gay guy said, "Guys, one more effort, I don't want to die." They heaved him on board and then the ride back to Phi Phi lasted hours! The second wave hit them but it was more a giant bump or swell, unlike the first "rolling" wave. For most of the people on Phi Phi, crossing an entire village of corrugated steel, underwater, pushed by a wave, meant instant death. Those that made it through drowned because on the other side, there was just more ocean. Not everybody here have lost there things. Some were stolen. “While some Thais risked their lives to save as many as they could, others where grabbing all they could,” says a woman who knows her daughter is alive but does not know in which hospital. One Italian man who evacuated his hotel returned to request what was in the safe: his entire group’s cash, tickets and passports. The woman said, “The safe is gone.” Can he believe her? I sent him to Tourist Police. I don’t think they’ll be investigating any of this. It probably will never be mentioned, at least not in Thailand. I saw a Japanese family reunited as well. It was beautiful. I also bumped into a classmate from movie school, Mehdi Benabid. He showed up quite late in the day. “What are you doing here?” I ask. “I was in Phi Phi. I stayed to carry the bodies. There were hundreds.” He looks so normal saying this. I usher him and his girlfriend in a minibus. A woman who lost her husband and cousins has been waitng all day in the sun with a little sign that reads “France” to point our compatriots to our little HQ upstairs. She looks so normal as well. I don't even ask her to go rest. It her way of holding in there and it's no time to collapse with three children in her responsibility. She also takes all the names of the people walking in. I don't tell her our officials wont even look at all these lists we're compiling: missing, off to Bangkok, in hospital, waiting for missing. I ask the attaché de police "Where is La France?" His excuse is that Sri Lanka, much more heavily hit, is the priority. Fair enough. In the early evening, the embassy in Bangkok finally sends us someone: the accountant and a guy that disapears so quickly I don't even get to know him. He asks me for what he is supposed to do. I tell him, “Sit here, hand these forms out and make sure these people have somebody waiting for them in Bangkok.” He says there will be a "cellule de crise." Too bad we don't have one here. Or would that be us? The consul is gone most of the day: looking for official papers in the morning (it turns out we don’t need them) then touring hospitals in the afternoon. The second mission is actually critical, and let’s hope he did it right. Meanwhile, the attaché de police is still on his mobile phone. Every time I tell him something he says, “Oooh laaa. I’m not too sure we can do that.” And he scuttles off. He usually shows up an hour later saying, “oh yeah, we can do that,” but I’ve gone ahead and done it anyway. He looks bored and annoyed all the time. Part of their problem is, they don’t speak to the Thais and the Thais are the only thing functioning here. From their home countries, no one here can expect anything. Austria’s consul left at twelve and never came back. Another one has been hiding in the Royal Phuket City Hotel all day. The US Consul is nonexistent. It so happens that the US Consul in Singapore is here on vacation but he’s repeatedly claiming, “I’m on vacation, I don’t know.” And then there’s the British, the orphans of the empire where the sun never sets. They have a massive flag floating before the governor’s palace. Officials with talky walkies, ties, and impeccable shirts stand guard next to a busy information desk. They’re polite and courteous. They look concerned and they look like they’ve got a job to do. I get all the information from them, and by doing so, France is probably second best in cutting the red tape. Neither the Brits nor the French go through the system Thai immigration has set up requiring fingerprints, photos taken, photocopies, etc, in an eight-step process organized outside in the glaring sun and that has basically screeched to a halt from complete overload. For in fact, nobody needs this paper. Full paperwork is only required to leave the country, but no one is leaving the country, everybody is going to Bangkok, so nobody needs the paperwork. The Thais admit to this but the process somehow continues. Regularly, I catch some French filling papers out and I say, “They don’t have to do this.” “Yes they do.” “No they don’t.” “Yes, because they have no passport.” “But they’re going to Bangkok. The police report is enough to go Bangkok. It’s a domestic flight” “Yes.” “And in Bangkok their representatives will give them temporary passports.” “Yes.” “So they don’t need the passports.” “Yes, if they go to Bangkok ok.” “Everybody is! There’s no Phuket-London, or Phuket-Paris.” At that point; I’m usually frothing at the mouth with two Thais holding me back. In the end, they admit, “To go to Bangkok, you only need a police report and you can get the rest from your representative in Bangkok”. In their defense, they’re just a little over-zealous because of the foreign minister strutting around with cameras and officers in his wake. Thank god a tiny yet ferocious Thai woman flies to my rescue every time I need to go through this argument. As I talk to the immigration officers in “private” they too say “I agree. I agree. But the minister, he said…” Besides that, the Thais are great. There is food and water everywhere. There is a free internet, free domestic and international calls, free housing, and especailly, the real life-saver, free rides to the airport and free flights to Bangkok. Everything, for the first time in Phuket’s history, is free. By the end of the day they were dumping so much food into that place, it’ll just up in the garbage. I’m so unaccustomed to all these freebies that I can’t help asking all the guys to who I trust French victims needing a lift to the airport, “Free? Sure?” “Yes! Free!” I mean, they’re shouting “Taxi! Airport!” exactly the same way they shout it in your face when you get off the plane. It's almost funny. The woman waiting for her husband waited all afternoon then disappeared. Did they find him? Did she go to bed? The pictures of non-identified bodies, bloated from seawater and heavily mangled, are piling up on the billboards. Another French guy has lost his wife in the water. The odds are pretty bad for her, for him and for his son. A six-year-old in Vachira (across the street from my house) lost his entire family. As for the Austrian man, I don't know either. The list is endless. The hospitals are packed, so are the morgues. The sea is now releasing ever more bodies. Since eight pm, the airport has refused to accept any more people. Our refugees are now being dispatched to Dulwich College that has offered them its boarding facilities. Flights will continue tomorrow. No more French were coming in from Phi Phi either. The last one I saw was a girl from Kamala; Phuket. She’d lost everything as well, but had miraculously (as all those who did) survived. She’d been taking her shower when her bungalow collapsed into the ocean and she ran through the streets of Kamala naked. I could just see her on the road – I lived in Kamala two months – and I thought of the picture of the burnt little girl in Vietnam. The death tolls are staggering. This is the opposite of 9/11. They keep going up. As of now, 22 000 total, 700 hundred on my island alone, and I can't imagine how many on Phi Phi... Location : Beauvais, France

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