Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Identifying the Tsunami Dead for Closure

I viewed an interesting, and rather moving TV doc last night called After the waves: Asia’s Tsunamis – One Year On. It covers virtually all the countries significantly affected by the natural disaster. There were many aspects, from the human angle to government’s progress on rehabilitating the devastated ares, and from inter-ethnic conflicts to even the discovery of an Indian archaeological ruin beneath the seas.

In this posting I will start off with one – the identification of the dead. Thailand suffered a large number of European tourists among its victims, over 2000 of the 5000 killed. The Europeans wanted positive identification rather than immediate mass burial, for emotional closure. Thus the foreign authorities leaned on Australia to take the lead in the forensic identification process.

Australia with its gruesome experience attained during the Bali bombings could provide the specialists to track, trace, record and identify as best as possible the remains of the tsunami victim, most of whom were already in stages of decomposition.

Fortunately the Thais gave the management of the task over to the Aussies. This was an example when commonsense triumphed over nationalistic pride.

Aussie federal police chief, highly respected Mike Keelty commented that he had never ever in his career come across such a staggering number of deaths so the task was certainly monumental. The task required him to manage 5000 bodies in various stages of decomposition while in Bali he had less than 200 killed.

The first task of the Aussies was to secure refrigeration units, which was sourced from the USA. Those came within 3 days, and they still function until today where about 900 corpses remain to be yet identified. Over 90% of the killed foreign tourists have already been identified, only because they have fingerprints and dental records. The team comprised all the forensic experts from dentists to fingerprints experts to those with the unpleasant task of handling the corpses, which were all done with great sensitivity. The Thai government did well to provide logistic support.

The Aussie police, whose duty over in southern Thailand will soon come to a close, express their concerns that many of the remaining corpses may never be identified because some of them could well be Burmese illegal immigrants whose absence were not reported while many were locals who don’t have any form of dental or ID records.

I say well done to the police forensic team for helping many to bring their sorrow to the desired closure.

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