Only seven more for the Disaster Victim Identification team
The Indian Ocean tsunami took the lives of 178 Finns. Of these, 171 bodies have been identified and transported home for burial and for some semblance of closure.
By Tomi Ervamaa in Phuket
It is raining heavily, coming down like stair-rods. Even though this ceremony is normally performed outdoors, now there is nothing for it but to remain in the marquee.
The light sack is taken out of the refrigerated cabinet and placed in a small coffin. The casket lid is screwed shut.
A Swedish clergyman, Conny Karlson, gives a short address over the coffin. After this, the casket - inside a wooden container - is lifted onto the back of a pick-up truck and transported to the cargo terminal at Phuket International Airport.
From the terminal hall, the coffin is transported to the hold of the aircraft. Two policemen watch the procedure. They wait until the plane has left the apron, taxied to the runway, and taken off for Finland.
It is Thursday, December 15th. Another tsunami victim, a child, is heading home for burial. This transport will be the last before Christmas.
The Finnish police officers follow the journey of the coffin all the way to the waiting plane and to the runway, in order that the deceased definitely reaches the right destination and does not travel to somewhere on the other side of the world through a simple clerical error by an airport freight handler.
This is one of the nightmares of the victim identification team working in Phuket. The other horror-scenario is that the wrong remains would be sent back to Finland, and that it would be necessary to request the relatives return the body. This has not happened.
"Once we did have a situation where a container bound for Finland nearly carried two bodies from another country, but we managed to stop it in time", admits Detective Inspector Ismo Kopra, the leader of the Finnish Disaster Victim Identification team in Phuket.
Ismo Kopra has watched over the same simple sending-off ceremony forty-four times before this one. On this occasion, just one body left Thailand for Finland, but earlier this year there were often more - nine coffins in the largest such transport.
"The next one will leave early next year, we hope", notes Kopra.
The expression of hope means that, if things go well, more Finnish victims will be identified in due time.
They probably will be, and if all goes really well, then every one of the dead and missing will find a final resting place at home.
"It is possible, in theory", says Kopra. And then he adds, with the familiarity of a sentence uttered many times before: "But we should prepare ourselves for that fact that a few will never be found."
A total of 178 Finns died in the tsunami - one in Sri Lanka and all the others in Thailand. With this latest body, 171 have now been identified, leaving seven victims unaccounted for. Six of them are children, and there is one missing adult.
"There are still upwards of 800 unidentified bodies in the mortuaries. If there are Finns among them, we will find them. Nobody can say if someone is finally to be listed as among the missing."
A large number of the unidentified victims are migrant workers from Myanmar, with no personal details and quite possibly with nobody knowing to miss them. Or if they did miss them, they are in no position to search for them.
In the days and weeks immediately after the waves struck, the DVI team-members estimated that a few dozen Finnish victims at most would be identified [see February article].
The result of their year-long work has thus been better than anyone dared hope.
Kopra explains the initial pessimism: a year ago the investigators did not know as much about the tsunami as they do now.
The wall of water swept over the shorelines with the same force as a storm-front of speeding freight trains. On the low-lying terrain of Khao Lak, where the overwhelming majority of the Finns perished, the tsunami steamrollered its way a couple of kilometres inland, and was only halted at the foot of the hills set back from the beach.
"The wave took everything with it into the jungle. Everything. It swept up trucks, cars, buses, jeeps, palm trees by their roots, whole buildings. And people", Kopra says.
"And when the water rolled back, everything was left in the forest."
As a consequence, far fewer objects and human victims were washed out to sea, to the open ocean or down into the deeps, than had been feared in the days immediately after the disaster.
The investigators, too, will soon be homeward bound. At one point there were as many as 55 Finnish forensic workers stationed in Phuket. Now there are only eight. Six of them will return home at the New Year.
Two will continue their work in the Thai capital of Bangkok for the month of January. Ismo Kopra will be one of them.
There is not much left to be done in Phuket. The details of the unidentified deceased have been saved on computer databases, and more information is forthcoming from DNA-samples that are sent for analysis in Sarajevo, in Bosnia. They have no shortage of experience on identifying victim remains in Sarajevo.
The data collected can then be compared with information gleaned from the relatives of victims in Finland.
On the ground in Phuket, they understand perfectly how painful the collection of victim identification data must have been, above all for the relatives. The police have had to go to the homes of families who have lost children, to take fingerprints from toys, from picture-books, from tooth-mugs...
The unidentified corpses will stay waiting in their refrigerated cabinets. Actually there was a moment when it looked as though the Thais might begin to bury those still not formally identified.
When the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited Finland in October, he said that the burials would begin at the beginning of next year and that the remains would be interred with some kind of microchip in the coffin, apparently to make it easier to identify the body at some later date.
"We were informed that the Thai authorities intended to bury the unidentified victims already by the time of the anniversary of the disaster. This certainly would not have improved the condition of the remains. It is greatly as a result of Finnish and Swedish efforts that this move was prevented."
The Finns and the Swedes managed to get an agreement from the Thai authorities that at least the westerners among the unidentified victims would be kept in their refrigerated containers.
So what is the hurry for the Thais? They are not overly willing to discuss such matters openly, but Kopra believes that the authorities wish to bury not only the mortal remains of the deceased but also the entire tsunami, the nightmare and the bad memories. Besides, they are a hindrance to the recovery of the tourism industry.
"They want to forget, and the deadline for the process of forgetting is the first anniversary. After that, people do not want to see things that will remind them of what took place here."
In other respects, work among the Thais has gone smoothly and very well. The Finnish DVI team live in the Orchid Resort Hotel on Karon Beach, and Kopra is still occupying the hotel manager's office.
"When we required premises on our arrival in Phuket, the hotel manager picked up his PC, slung it under his arm, and said ‘There you go, take my room'. He hasn't had any second thoughts about it."
Even without such generosity, there would not be much to complain about with the living conditions in Phuket, at least if one compares them with the situation in Kosovo, where Kopra has previously been on a victim identification team.
The Orchid Resort has a swimming pool, and the sea is a minute's walk away. Here there is no need to wonder if the path to the beach is mined, or if some nationalist zealot with an assault rifle is going to empty his magazine.
When "the guilty" are a massive earthquake and the unstoppable sea and not some Balkan death-squad, there is no call to ask who killed whom and why.
"Here we have not needed to question why something like this had to happen. There has been no need to feel a sense of anger."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.12.2005
Previously in HS International Edition:
Most bodies of Finnish tsunami victims returned to Finland (1.9.2005)
As many as 100 Finns could remain unaccounted for after tsunami (9.2.2005)
Accident Investigation Board: The natural disaster in Asia on December 26th, 2004 (.pdf file)
TOMI ERVAMAA / Helsingin Sanomat