- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

KHAO LAK, Thailand —Martin Bleck is still spooked by water. He vividly remembers the wave that swept him and his mother away, and the field of corpses through which he waded to safety. He chooses to live on high ground, away from the shore. He has tsunami waves tattooed down his right arm.

But this amiable 20-year-old, a professional guitarist from Lisbon, has chosen to return to the beaches where the tsunami struck Thailand two years ago, and to pour his heart into helping survivors like himself by teaching them English and guitar. It’s his way of coping with the nightmare and repaying a debt.

“There was something inside me that wanted to come back to help the people who helped me when I was in the worst situation in my life,” he said. “Some of the Thais had lost as many as eight children and still they looked after me. It was the least I could do.”

Within moments two years ago, the tsunami turned this tropical paradise into a graveyard for more than 5,000 Thais and foreign vacationers like Mr. Bleck. Around the Indian Ocean rim, about 230,000 people in a dozen countries were left dead or missing when an undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra unleashed the giant wave of Dec. 26, 2004.

In Sumatra’s Aceh province, where an estimated 167,000 perished, extreme personal loss and financial desperation have taken a toll on mental health. In Sri Lanka, which lost more than 35,000 people, recovery has been complicated by the resurgence of a civil war that has all but stopped reconstruction in some areas.

Many who lost family or friends still show signs of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, health workers report.

Mansur, 36, felt himself going crazy after the tsunami killed his wife and 8-year-old son in Aceh.

“I heard voices in my head, they kept getting louder and louder,” said Mansur, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

One day he went to a market, poured gasoline on his feet and set himself on fire. Vendors quickly doused the flames. A few months ago he went on medication.

“I feel much better now,” he said in a weary voice.

So does the tourism industry on Thailand’s southwest coast, where hotels and restaurants are crowded again.

The heavily damaged Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach and Spa Resort has planted 100,000 trees and restored many of its 240 rooms in a yearlong $20 million effort to return the area to something of its former glory.

“Restoring the hotel? That was simple. You just call in the workers and pay the bills,” said Vitya Chakrabandhu, the owner.

But he excuses himself to wipe away the tears. When the water struck the hotel, Mr. Vitya grabbed onto two trees, saving his own life and that of his eldest daughter. Another daughter, 22-year-old Kara, died, along with 20 others at the hotel. She is buried under a black granite headstone between the two trees.

“You slowly, gradually feel better,” said Mr. Vitya, “but you can never forget, you can never get over it.”

Not far from Mr. Vitya’s hotel is the poor fishing village of Ban Nam Khem, which lost nearly half of its 5,000 people.

Thanks to foreign and Thai aid agencies, the village appears in fine shape, with small, neat houses in glistening coats of fresh white paint. But this is still a shattered, fearful community.

“The sea looks scarier in the monsoon season when there are strong winds and waves,” said Samaporn Phetklueng, 33, who owns a small grocery store near the water.

“If I had a place to go, I would have left a long time ago,” she said.

Many Thais have moved to government-built houses on higher ground, leaving much of Ban Nam Khem to illegal migrant workers from nearby Burma who have no option but to stay. Generations-old ties among friends and neighbors have been severed and people are less inclined to share with each other, Miss Samaporn said.

Evidence of the tsunami’s destructive wake is still visible along stunning 12-mile Khao Lak beach south of the village, where warning signs say, “Tsunami Hazard Zone.”

Workmen are completing the Tsunami Victims Cemetery near Ban Nam Khem, to be officially opened Dec. 26 on the second anniversary, and are burying the last of the 410 unidentified bodies beneath simple concrete headstones marked with their case numbers. Their DNA is on file.

Jackhammers and cranes are busy at the beach’s largest hotel, the 320-room Sofitel Magic Lagoon, where more than 300 guests and staff perished and which until recently was a deserted wreck, its elegant Thai-style pavilions invaded by jungle vines and creepers.

Hillocks of rubble, shattered furniture and twisted steel rods are piled up outside gutted rooms set for renovation. Brownish sludge coats a swimming pool winding through the grounds.

But the Sofitel is one of the few still unrestored properties at Khao Lak and nearby areas, which now offer 3,000 hotel rooms, up from 1,200 last year, said Prasert Chanplongam, president of the tourist association in Phang Nga province. A half-dozen major hotels are planned, and the big international tour operators that yanked Khao Lak from their portfolios are again promoting it.

“We have been reborn,” Mr. Prasert said.

So has the resort island of Phuket to the south, where endless rows of beach chairs, three deep, begin to fill up by midmorning on the hardest-hit beach at Patong. A cruise ship rests at anchor offshore. Food, drinks, boat rides, foot massages and sex are everywhere for sale.

“Typhoons, earthquakes, hurricanes, all that stuff happens. The tsunami was a freak,” said Eric Day, U.S. Navy chief petty officer from Charleston, W.Va., who was at Patong with his girlfriend on vacation.

But idyllic, languid beaches — and the statistical odds against another tsunami hitting the same place — offer little comfort to Karen Ballhausen, who lost Rolf, her husband of 43 years, to the wall of water.

The 66-year-old German woman still fears treading on sand or even getting close to a swimming pool.

“To deal with the tragedy, one has to go back to the place,” she told the Associated Press, which has followed her ordeal since the tsunami. “I just simply have to go there to feel closer to him.”

Mrs. Ballhausen hopes that revisiting the place of her loss and meeting with other survivors will do more to heal her inner scars than the months of therapy she has undergone. The widow has returned twice, once for her husband’s funeral and last year for a memorial service. She plans to be here again for the two-year anniversary on Tuesday.

She hunted for her husband’s wedding ring until authorities finally told her it was probably stolen by looters.

“I no longer wear my own wedding ring, because I do not want to be connected to a person who might now be wearing my husband’s,” she said in a telephone interview from Hollenstadt, her hometown.

Once an expert scuba diver, even the sound of heavy rain now frightens her, and taking a nephew to an indoor swimming pool in Germany sent her into panic. “But this time I want to go into the water. I actually tried last year but when I felt the sand moving beneath my feet it was all over,” she said.

Mr. Bleck, the guitarist, is still haunted by similar fears but feels well on the way to healing.

He remembers arriving in Khao Lak a day before the tsunami with his mother, two couples and a baby of 6 months. He and his mother were swept out of their second-floor bungalow room and engulfed in the maelstrom of water and debris.

Injured, barefoot and nearly naked, Mr. Bleck endured a grueling, 10-hour trek past corpses and severed limbs before reaching safety. Later he discovered his mother had survived, but the baby girl and her mother were dead.

Returning initially for four months, he and his friends set up a London-based foundation that has built toilets, playgrounds and other facilities for Khao Lak’s schools. Now he is back for a six-month teaching stint with youngsters, including the tsunami orphans.

“I am sure all the survivors will always have a deep, special connection with Thailand. I don’t want to forget. It’s part of me,” he said. “Most people in Europe and America do things for themselves mainly. Now I think more of helping others, people I don’t even know. Before the tsunami I would never have done that.”

Associated Press staffers Markus Kreutz in Bangkok, Dilip Ganguly in Sri Lanka and Chris Brummitt in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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