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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-SIRIWAN Feb-23-2005 (900 words) With photos. xxxi

After tsunamis, Catholic broadcaster records Thai response

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

PHI PHI ISLAND, Thailand (CNS) -- Siriwan Santisakultarm walked along Thailand's Phi Phi Island in early February and recognized an odor she knew too well.

"Can you smell that?" asked the Catholic broadcaster as she walked through the rubble of Thailand's famous resort island. "That is the smell of the dead. There are bodies here. Once you learn that smell, you will never forget."

Siriwan's instincts proved correct; the next day, volunteer workers recovered bodies on the island.

When Siriwan first arrived on Phi Phi Dec. 31, nearly 100 bodies were recovered by rescue workers. She recalled how the workers carried the dead, navigating their way through the island's narrow alleyways.

"That was a very sad day," she said. "Either you carried a body, or you were a body being carried."

Siriwan, 48, arrived in southern Thailand Dec. 28 without a clear plan of how she would contribute to the recovery effort. An award-winning broadcast journalist and documentary film producer, she volunteered serving meals, setting up camps and taking part in the late-night planning sessions with dozens of other Thai religious and lay people who arrived in the South to coordinate the church's response.

Quickly, Siriwan decided to ply her trade. Using a borrowed video camera, she recorded the grisly recovery of bodies on Phi Phi; she documented the formation of the two church-run refugee camps; she was there when Bishop Joseph Prathan Sridarunsil of Surat Thani comforted survivors in the hardest-hit provinces. She also served as the chief correspondent for UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand.

The day after the tsunamis she told her husband, Wirath, 51, "I cannot stay here; I must go down south right away."

"I did this out of a journalist sense, but also out of a sense of compassion for the suffering," she told Catholic News Service.

Wirath, a pediatrician, told his wife that he should go in her place, but she told him, "They don't need more doctors, because most of the victims are dead."

"If I wasn't there to record the church's activities, this record would have been lost to history," she said.

Her efforts resulted in a 42-minute film, "Tsunami Solidarity Thailand," which chronicled the Thai church's response to the tsunami disaster. The film, which she produced entirely out of her own pocket, is used as an orientation for church workers in the tsunami-affected areas.

The raw footage of the film was first shown Jan. 9 at St. Agnes Church in Krabi. Parishioners wept as they relived the nightmare of how their communities and livelihoods were destroyed.

In many ways, her response mirrored that of hundreds of Thais who responded to the disaster. The cleanup was quick, efficient and mostly a national affair, with Thai citizens taking long leaves of absence from their jobs or closing their shops and businesses to help. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declined international assistance, saying that Thailand could take care of its own. A month after the disaster, there was little evidence of the destruction in most areas.

Siriwan said the first few weeks after the disaster were long, hard days with very little sleep. She stopped counting the number of bodies she saw recovered, but it numbered in the hundreds.

In mid-January, during a conversation with her editor at UCA News, she broke down.

"I was calling in a report, and I cried. I don't know why, but it just came out," she said.

She also was calling to cancel a scheduled workshop with young journalists in Cambodia.

"I said, 'I can go to Cambodia physically, but my soul, my spirit and my heart will not follow me.' And then I cried. There was too much work to do; I could not leave them," she said of southern Thailand's survivors.

Fearing she was having a breakdown, her editor called her back to Bangkok, which allowed Siriwan to finish editing her film. Two weeks later, she returned to the South. This time, it was her husband who pushed her to go back. While his wife put finishing touches to her film, Wirath made her travel arrangements.

"He said, 'Go and do what you can.' He forced me to go back. He knew I had a role and that I could contribute," she said.

Siriwan is in her second term as president of Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication, which is an affiliation of broadcast, electronic and new media professionals as well as academics and others in the field of communications.

While discussing her initial trip to Phi Phi, she recalled how she sat down to eat after several hours of work. Unknown to her, dead bodies were being stacked less than five feet behind her.

"I did not even notice it at first. Can you imagine that?" she said.

In a letter she sent to Signis members in early January, she described Phi Phi as a former paradise "that now looked more like hell."

"There were no local people around, no water, no electricity, no phone signals. What was left were corpses, ruins and fires set for burning debris."

In the basement of a hotel, she saw the body of a Western woman with her arms wrapped around a young girl.

"The woman must have been trying to protect her little angel as the waves struck, killing them both," she wrote.


Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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