Remembering the Children of Tsunami, four years later…

Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam
Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam

For many weeks, Jantakarn Thep-Chuay — nicknamed Beam -– did not understand why her father was not coming home. The eight-year-old girl, in Takuapa in Thailand’s southern district of Phang Nga, had last seen him go to work on the morning of 26 December 2004.

“On that Sunday, the day there was a wave, my dad wore his tennis shoes,” she recalls as she gets into his pair of sandals. “My dad didn’t have to do much work — he just walked around looking after workers.”

Beam’s father Sukaroak –- a construction supervisor at a new beach resort in Khao Lak –- was one of thousands of Thais and foreign tourists killed when the Asian Tsunami hit without warning. His body was never found.

For months, Beam would draw pictures of her family. These, and family photos of happier times, helped her to slowly come to terms with what happened.

The first year was long and hard for the family Sukaroak left behind: Beam, her two-year-old brother Boom, and mother Sumontha, 28. The determined young widow struggled to keep home fires burning -– and to keep her troublesome in-laws at bay.

As if that were not enough, she also had to engage assorted bureaucracies: even obtaining an official death certificate for her late husband entailed much effort.

Just a few weeks after the disaster, the local authorities approached Sumontha suggesting that she gives away one or both her children for adoption. Apparently a foreigner was interested. She said a firm ‘No’.

“Her dad wanted Beam to become an architect. He was hoping for a day when he could build something she draws,” says Sumontha. “If I am still alive, I want to raise my own children. I am their mother. For better or worse, I want to raise them myself.”

The Tsunami destroyed Beam’s school, but she continued to attend a temporary school set up with local and foreign help. Before the year ended, she moved to a brand new ‘Tsunami School’ that the King of Thailand built to guarantee education for all children affected by the disaster.

Sumontha, Beam and Boom are three ordinary Asians who have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and resourcefulness as they coped with multiple challenges of rebuilding their lives after the Tsunami. Theirs is one of eight families that we followed throughout 2005, under our empathetic communication initiative called Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future.

It was a multi-country, multi-media project that tracked how ordinary Asians rebuilt their lives, livelihoods and futures after one of the biggest disasters in recent years. We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand for a year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005
Four countries, eight locations: where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005

Meet the Children of Tsunami

They have never met each other. Yet they were united first in grief, then in survival. Five girls and three boys, between 8 to 16 years of age, living in eight coastal locations in four countries. Their families were impacted by the Asian Tsunami in different ways. Some lost one or both parents -– or other family members. Some had their homes or schools destroyed. Others found their parents thrown out of a job. During the year, these families faced many hardships and challenges in rebuilding their futures.

These remarkable children were our personal heroes for 2005:
Selvam, 13, Muzhukkuthurai, Tamil Nadu state, India
Mala, 11, Kottaikkadu, Tamil Nadu state, India
Putri, 8, Lampaya, Aceh province, Indonesia
Yenni, 15, Meulaboh, Aceh province, Indonesia
Heshani, 13, Suduwella, southern Sri Lanka
Theeban, 14, Karaitivu, eastern Sri Lanka
Bao, 16, Kuraburi, Phang Nga district, Thailand
Beam, 8, Takuapa, Phang Nga district, Thailand

With their trust and cooperation, we captured their unfolding realities unscripted and unprompted.

Read and experience much more on the Children of Tsunami dedicated website

Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri only a memory
Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri only a memory

As I recalled in early 2007, when we tragically lost one of eight survivor children – Theeban – to Sri Lanka’s civil war: As journalists, we have been trained not to get too attached to the people or subjects we cover, lest they affect our judgment and dilute our objectivity. The four production teams involved in Children of Tsunami initially agreed to follow this norm when we met in Bangkok in early 2005 for our first (and only) planning meeting. We also resolved not to reward our participating families in cash or kind, as they were all participating voluntarily with informed consent.

“But the ground reality was different. 2005, Asia’s longest year, wore on. As survivors slowly patched their lives together again, our film teams found themselves becoming friends of families or playing Good Samaritan. Sometimes our teams would find a survivor family close to starvation and — acting purely as human beings, not journalists — they would buy dry rations or a cooked meal. At other times, finding the children restless or aimless, they would buy them a football, kite or some other inexpensive toy that would produce hours of joy and cheer.

“As commissioners and publishers of Children of Tsunami stories, we didn’t object to these acts of kindness. Journalism with empathy was far preferable to the cold detachment that textbooks recommend.

In 2007, my colleague Manori Wijesekera – who served as production manager of this challenging effort – and I wrote up our definitive account of the project for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book. That chapter can be read online here.

Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues
(25mins) was the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. It can be viewed online at the Children of Tsunami website.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears (25 mins) was the shorter version of the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. We co-produced it with the Singapore-based regional broadcaster Channel News Asia.

Watch the first few minutes on YouTube:

All images courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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