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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-CHURCH Feb-23-2005 (720 words) With photos. xxxi

Thai church volunteers help aboriginal tsunami survivors in South

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

TAKUA PA, Thailand (CNS) -- Khnowan Hokhua, a volunteer at the church-run Ban Taptawan refugee camp in southern Thailand, arrived at a dig site a short distance from the camp. Days earlier, cadaver dogs identified the area as containing bodies, and Khnowan was among the 100 or so people who gathered to watch the dig.

They were there not out of a morbid curiosity, she said, but to help the spirits of the dead pass from one world to the next.

"I am hoping that bodies are found because so many people are missing," she told Catholic News Service in early February. "I do not feel scared. I look at the face of the dead people to see if it is someone I know."

Down the road, the Catholic Church operates a camp for about 300 people who belong to a Thai aboriginal group known as the sea gypsies or Morgan people.

A medical team of Camillian priests and lay people found the group Jan. 5 in a rural area of Bang Sak village in Phangnga, the province most devastated by the tidal waves, explained Father Paul Cherdchai Lertjitlekha, vice provincial of Camillians in Thailand. A week later, church workers moved the group into a camp where a wide array of services and activities are offered.

"When we first arrived, there were many, many medical teams here operating; it was very confusing. But the sea gypsies had not received any medical care since the tsunami, so we decided to serve them," he told Catholic News Service.

The Morgan people have their own language and culture, and their community is mostly self-contained, Father Cherdchai said. As a result, many do not have identification papers, which makes it difficult for them to apply for state aid. Church workers are helping camp residents navigate Thailand's complicated bureaucracy, he said.

The Camillians, who operate a hospital in Bangkok, assigned four doctors to the camp through the end of February.

Father Cherdchai said that nearly every person in the village had lost a family member in the disaster. He also said that the Morgan people felt rejected by the lack of care they received in the disaster's immediate aftermath.

"We needed to tend to their emotional as well as their physical needs," he said. "At first, they were afraid we would leave them."

More than a month after the disaster, the trauma from the event was evident among the camp's residents. Many wept as they recalled their moments of terror.

Sri Harnthalae, 43, said that as the waves carried her away she thought of her mother and father. She survived the tsunami; her father did not. Her mother was badly injured, but now lives with her in the camp after spending several weeks in the hospital.

"I found my father's body," she said.

Although she is still grieving the loss of her father, she said, she is glad to be in the camp "because it is near where I used to live."

The church also operates a second camp for the Morgan people in Kukot, several miles away from Ban Taptawan. The Sacred Heart sisters who operate the camp have a saying that their day of service will not end "until the last light goes out" in the camp.

Sacred Heart Sister Theresa Sanguan said many of the residents still have nightmares, and whatever psychological problems that are present tend to come out at night. She said the nuns stay inside the camp until they are sure the residents are secure.

"We want to be with the people when they need us," she said.

In Kukot, the Morgan people said goodbye to two Camillian nuns that had been with them from the time the camp opened in early January.

In a bittersweet farewell in early February, community leaders promised the sisters that once their community was rebuilt they would build a special home for the nuns so that they could be with them on their first night back in their reconstructed homes.

Camillian Sister Maria Uraiwan Sasong, whose community asked her to return to an AIDS ministry in northern Thailand, said her heart would remain with the people. She said her duty was to help the people build a foundation so that "they could return to a better life."


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