24 December 2014

Ten years after the tsunami, life is back to normal but memories remains fresh

Nong Bee stands in front of a photo of Phi Phi Island in the wake of the tsunami
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N

By Nattha Keenapan/Video by Jingjai N.

KOH PHI PHI, Thailand, 15 December 2014 – On a sunny day in November, local residents, children and young people gather at Baan Koh Phi Phi School to play and compete in Phi Phi Island’s football tournament. Playing football had always kept 23-year-old Kwanrudee Kaphokla (nicknamed Nong Bee) and her teammates close. But what kept them closer was the difficult times they shared after the tsunami devastated their island 10 years ago.

“On that morning, some of us were right here playing football,” Nong Bee says, recalling one of the deadliest disasters in Thailand’s history when she was just 13 years old. “Luckily, we managed to escape and everyone in our team survived.”

The tsunami, which struck Thailand’s Andaman coastline on 26 December 2004, killed more than 5,300 people in Thailand, with some 2,800 others missing. The giant waves hit the heart of Koh Phi Phi, swept away houses and killed more than 1,300 local villagers and tourists. The island, one of Thailand's most popular beach resorts, was covered in rubble, debris and dead bodies. 

“Ten years have passed, but the memory of the tsunami never goes away,” Nong Bee says, her voice shaking. “I heard people shouting that a big wave was coming. At first, I ran towards the ocean. But then I changed my mind and started following everyone up the hill. It was chaos. People were looking for their loved ones. There were dead bodies everywhere and adults were covering children's eyes with their hands so they didn’t see them.”

Nong Bee with her mother and brother at the family restaurant, rebuilt after the tsunami
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N.

Nong Bee did not lose any immediate family, but her home and the family restaurant were completely destroyed. Some of her relatives were killed, including a two-year-old cousin who was pulled out of her mother’s arms by the wave. The massive devastation led the government to temporarily close off the island and evacuate residents to the mainland Krabi Province.

After the tsunami, Nong Bee and her family spent a year living in a temporary shelter in Krabi. Various organizations, including UNICEF, provided emergency assistance that included shelter, safe drinking water and food for the survivors. Toys, books, stationery and sports equipment were provided for affected children, while psycho-social activities were organized to help them cope with their loss.

Nong Bee helped out at a UNICEF-organized child friendly space. “I talked to other children, asked them how they felt and told them to write it down,” she said. “It made me feel better and I could understand those children because we were in the same situation. We lost everything. But what can we do? It's already gone. We just had to start again.”

The healing power of sport

Kwanrudee practices her football skills on the beach at Koh Phi Phi
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N.

One thing that kept Nong Bee and her friends going was playing football. It helped ease their suffering. Throughout the year, the Koh Phi Phi team members kept playing and practicing together, and their efforts finally paid off. “I think it was because we all survived and kept playing football, so other people started to pay attention to us,” Nong Bee says, looking at her friends as they get ready for the match. “Many reporters came to interview us and then a lot of people started to offer their help.”

From a small team that nobody had heard of, the Koh Phi Phi team became known as the young survivors’ team. The children had a chance to play at national and international tournaments. They were offered scholarships and Nong Bee later played for a regional school team. Some of her teammates later joined the national football team. In the aftermath of the tsunami, they became an inspiration for other children on Koh Phi Phi.

“I think what we got was an opportunity,” the team coach, Samruay Chomchoei, says. “The tsunami was actually a turning point in their lives.”

‘Tsunami kids’

Students at Baan Koh Phi Phi School brush their teeth after lunch.
  With support from UNICEF, the school no longer faces water shortages.
© UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N.

Nine students were killed at Baan Koh Phi Phi School, which was badly damaged by the tsunami. All of the 180 students from kindergarten to Grade 9 were transferred to other schools in mainland Krabi and nearby provinces, where they were often teased by other students and called 'tsunami kids'.

Meanwhile, Baan Koh Phi Phi School received support from UNICEF and other organizations for reconstruction and learning materials, so that children could return to school. To address water shortage problems, UNICEF helped improve the water distribution system, allowing children to have enough safe drinking water. Finally, on 1 November 2005, almost a year after the tsunami, the school was able to reopen again with forty-eight students returning. 

“The children were very happy when the school reopened and more kept returning,” says school Principal Weerawat Chaokaew, adding that today there are 117 students from kindergarten to Grade 9.

“Here, nobody called them ‘tsunami kids’,” he continues. “The children felt safe and secure. They stayed at the school playing until it got dark. Their parents would leave them here while they worked overtime to regain their livelihood. School was a refuge for the children as they gradually returned to normality.”

Long-term impact

Today, Phi Phi Island is packed by tourists around the world. Ten years after, the Island is fully recovered and life is back to normal.  © UNICEF Thailand/2014/Jingjai N.
Today on Koh Phi Phi, hotels, shops and restaurants have been rebuilt. Tourists from around the world arrive in ferries and speedboats to experience the island’s impressive limestone cliffs and white sandy beaches. Ten years after the tsunami, life is back to normal.

But talking about the tsunami still bring tears to local residents’ eyes, no matter how many years have passed. “I’m still afraid of it,” says Nong Bee’s mother, Yara Haphonkla, 54, as her eyes began to fill with tears. “I remember coming back here three months after the tsunami to help clean up the island. I could still smell the dead bodies.”

For many children, disasters like the tsunami have a long-term psychological impact, which may only become clear years later. “Many children affected by the tsunami did not finish school, especially those who lost one or both parents,” Principal Weerawat says. “Their families could not cope with the loss, and there was nobody for the children to hold on to.”

For Nong Bee, although the support she received in the aftermath of the tsunami brought her new opportunities in life, this could never make up for all that she lost. “Without the tsunami, our football team would not have come this far,” she says. “But if I could change the past, I wish the tsunami had never happened at all.”

The author
Nattha Keenapan is Senior Communication Assistant at UNICEF Thailand

Watch a video: Voice of a UNICEF staff, 10 years after the tsunami

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