Tsunami survivors celebrate ‘second life’

Survivors of Indian Ocean Tsunami mark 10th anniversary of a disaster that still leaves an indelible mark on region.

“I’m celebrating my second life,” says Thomas Leuenberger, a Swiss tourist who survived the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, when I ask him why he comes back to Khao Lak, Thailand every year for the anniversary. 

He didn’t need to tell me how traumatised he’d been by the experience because when we first met he’d had to take a moment to calm down and recover after listening to fellow survivors recount their experiences.  

He was just one of several foreign tourists and Thai people whom we met while covering the commemoration of a decade since the killer wave struck. 

They all spoke of the sharp pain of the memories they carry with them, all saying it is as if it happened yesterday.

Khao Lak has changed tremendously since that day.  The streets are bustling with families on holiday, backpackers and tour operators.  German bakeries, Indian restaurants, Italian cafés and of course Thai eateries jostle for customers.  

Before the tsunami struck, it was a relatively quiet tourist destination.  There weren’t the glitzy big resorts that are typical of Phuket, a few kilometres south off the coast.

Nevertheless, thousands of foreigners, almost as many as Thai people were killed. The place was laid waste by the force of the massive waves, only a few trees and the shells of some of the strong buildings were left standing.

Dead bodies of men, but mostly women and children were scattered all over the place and the stench was overwhelming.

One Thai woman who owns a guesthouse and bar with her Swiss husband told me her greatest fear at that time was how she would make a living if the tourists didn’t come back.

Somphit Lambert told me she and her husband only had the clothes they were wearing everything else was destroyed.  But slowly and painfully she and others rebuilt their lives out of the trauma and grief, finding the courage and endurance to reconstruct their homes and businesses, literally brick by brick.

I hadn’t been back to Phuket for holidays since the tsunami hit.  I didn’t feel that I could relax and enjoy myself in a place where so many had died and there had been so much suffering  That changed this week as I saw for myself how people from around the world had supported each other on every level so that Khao Lak is thriving today even more than before the tsunami. 

Friends, governments, aid organisations and the international community have turned the world’s first global disaster into a story of survival and endurance.