Update3: January 27, 2005
Of all those affected by the tsunamis, fishermen may have been hit the hardest. ROB MCKEOWN reports from the fishing village of Ban Nam Khem in southern Thailand.
Phraiwan Poomjan squats on what used to be the concrete floor of someone's wood-walled home, sketching with a stick in a pile of sand. Military officials are lecturing him and his fellow fishermen about government housing plans. His walnut-brown skin is set in stark relief against the shockingly white tee-shirt that he picked up from a pile of donated clothing a couple of days ago.
They sit in long meetings with government officials in crowded rooms or tents. They stand in endless lines in the sun for Styrofoam-packaged dishes of rice and vegetables. They trade whispered rumors of the prospects of cash arriving. The displaced residents of the fishing hamlet of Ban Nam Khem sleep in a dusty refugee camp several miles inland where donated tents, some made for camping and some that would be more appropriate for a circus or country fair, have been set up in a red and blue cluster. Everyone agrees it is far too hot. They wake by 6 a.m. and hitch rides to their ruined village.
Almost a month has gone by since the sea from which 80% of these villagers drew their livelihood rose up and destroyed most of their town. Some estimate nearly a thousand perished in Nam Khem -- out of roughly 3,000 residents -- although exact numbers are hard to come by, as many here have not registered with the government or are illegal immigrants.
Ban Nam Khem was hit so hard because of the village's exposed position along a thin strip of white sand and land reclaimed from the Andaman Sea. When the water started rushing in, Phraiwan and other fishermen sent their families running inland and tried to get their boats to safety. "We were on deck trying to get out to sea," Phraiwan recalls. "But we weren't in time and it toppled us over. I was washed inland almost 2 kilometers. The water was black, dirty, and scary. It carried me past there."
He points away from the sea to an area just beyond a toppled brick wall. There is nothing but mud, skinny palm trees, and a lone boat, bright orange, tossed far from the sea and stranded next to a house that, amazingly, didn't suffer any major damage.
As Phraiwan talks, three villagers stand behind him, listening and nodding. They are all muscular and tanned, and they are the first people I've met in the Khao Lak region (where well over 4,000 have died) who actually swam through the tidal waves. Not one of them seems to have even a cut on his arm, but their eyes -- dark, still, weighty -- tell stories.
Now that the foaming white and rushing brown waters of the tsunami have receded, fishermen are left in an especially tough position. Unlike the rich tourist hotels nearby, they have neither investors nor insurance. Their boats lie in ruin. Loan sharks by the dozen have begun to appear in the camps. Incredibly, no one has come to explain to the fishermen what a tsunami is, how one forms, why this one came, and if it could happen again. They surround foreigners to ask these questions. Every day rumors of more tidal waves fly.
"I don't even care about my home as much. It is more important that we all get boats. Without them we have nothing. It is our life," says Phraiwan when asked what he most needs. On this point the fishermen are unanimous. They used to fish for squid, sea bass, snapper, or whatever was biting, leaving at dusk and returning to sell on the docks in the ember-tinged light of dawn. Most boats employed up to 20 people, each of whom had a large family network depending on him directly. But no one here has been to sea since Christmas.
Phraiwan's was a typical Nam Khem fishing family. As the only college-educated child, he remained on land most of the time to handle business. His brother, Suksan, captained the ship, and his father, Sompong, accompanied him to sea. Their families, girlfriends, and even cousins depend on them for money. Right now all that remains of their boat is a small section of the hull, which resembles a broken wooden backbone.
Phraiwan's mother has just left the hospital after a three-week battle with a lung infection. She will move far up north; she's become frightened to live near the Andaman Sea. What remains of the rest of the family will stay in Ban Nam Khem. Phraiwan's girlfriend and the mother of his son, Wandee, lost her parents. In all, the Poomjan family lost five cousins to the tsunami. They've been paid $40 for each adult. The government says it will help rebuild their homes and give up to about $5,200 for their boats, but the fishermen say it will cost perhaps ten times that to rebuild a solid boat.
Ban Nam Khem citizens are not entirely confident that help will come in the end. They've already had some experience with the difference between what the government says it will do and what it can do. It was not until three days after the tsunami that workers came to help clean the devastated Nam Khem village -- this despite the fact that cleanup in the richer Phuket area, some three hours south, was already well under way. This left Phraiwan and Suksan on their own to remove corpses from mud, destroyed houses, trees, and toppled boats. While they could recognize neighbors or family for the first two days, by the third the corpses were swollen with gas, purple, and putrid. They describe all of this with a calm reflection.
Fishermen like those in Ban Nam Khem are perhaps the best example of why the form of the help tsunami victims receive is crucial. "We really don't care about the money for homes or for those who died. Everything that has happened is awful but we want to move on. It's been almost a month now and we don't need clothes or even food." says Suksan Poomjan. "We just want money to build a new boat and a boat to go and find the fish. It is our life. We can take care of everything after that."