January 6, 2005
Report From Phuket Faith and Tsunami: A Rescue Mission
Ten minutes after the tsunami hit, my phone started ringing. It's been ringing ever since, 24 hours a day -- husbands looking for wives, mothers looking for daughters, friends looking for their traveling companions.
As one of the Chabad emissaries living in Southeast Asia, I was dispatched that very night on Dec. 26 to the hardest hit areas. My mission: to aid with the search and rescue efforts, particularly in regard to the thousands of missing Israelis and other Jewish travelers.
Yakov Dvir, the Israeli consul in Thailand, conveyed an urgent request in the name of Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, director of Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Thailand, that Chabad step in to help. All of us -- the six permanent Chabad rabbis and our families, and the 12 rabbinical students now living and working in Thailand -- immediately moved into 24-hour mode, fielding calls, compiling lists and offering aid and comfort to the survivors.
When I arrived on the island of Phuket, a Thai resort destination, bloated bodies still lined the streets. We had hundreds of names on our lists, with new ones being added every hour.
For three days now I have been making my rounds of the morgues, hospitals and makeshift shelters, trying to match faces and fates to the names in my lists. For the dazed survivors, we arrange food, clothing, medical care and transportation back home.
For the dead, we have the unfortunate task of helping the ZAKA (Disaster Victims Identification) volunteers who've flown in from Israel make the identification, arrange for a proper Jewish burial and get the news to loved ones keeping vigil by the phone. But in a place where unfortunately so many will be thrown together in mass graves, there is some sense of relief and closure knowing that the victim has been found and will receive a Jewish burial.
From the moment a Jewish body is identified, it is not left alone for a minute. This is the last respect and love we can give to our brothers and sisters.
On Monday we found Mattan. The 11-month-old boy was torn from his mother's arms as they played on the beach. Both she and her husband survived the tsunami, but Mattan was nowhere to be seen. Steve and Sylvia Nesima found their son in the makeshift morgue, along with the hundreds of other children who had no chance against the monstrous waves. Mattan was flown to Bangkok, where Chabad emissaries took turns sitting with him around the clock until they put his small body on the El Al plane to Israel for burial.
Our three Chabad centers in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui, have been transformed into crisis centers for counseling, clothing, communication, food, money, transportation and shelter. We have opened our phone lines for free calls to assuage the fear of parents who will not rest until they hear their son's or daughter's voice on the other end. Our free e-mail service has enabled hundreds to contact worried loved ones and assure them of their safety.
The survivors come to us shaken, hungry and overwhelmed. They need to go home and be with their families. Until that is possible, it is our responsibility to provide them with that love, comfort and safety while they are still here. For some that means a warm meal. Others need money and arrangements for necessary travel documents, some a hug or shoulder to cry on and others a place to sleep.
The Thai government has been incredibly helpful and organized. Now that people have been able to travel here to help, we have been joined by dozens of volunteers who've flown in from Israel. We're all working together, around the clock.
No one has yet digested the magnitude of what happened. Right now, there's too much to do to even pause for a moment to contemplate it. The unity among all the workers is incredible.
I was moved when I saw the news reporters join us to help locate and identify the injured and dead. They were no longer looking at the situation through the camera as they worked alongside the rabbis, government officials and volunteers.
On a larger scale, this disaster has brought people of every race, creed and religion together. There are no divisions in suffering. There are no barriers.
Rich, poor, young, old, male, female were all the same in the eyes of the waves, and now, once again, are all the same when it comes to offering aid, support and love.
What keeps us going are the miracles that are sprinkled throughout the horror. Today, a 20-day-old baby was found alive, floating upon a mattress in the water. A 1-year-old who was torn from his mother's arms was miraculously recovered by his nanny, seconds before he would have been submerged in water.
A Jewish family of six were scheduled to fly to Ko Phi Phi, the hardest hit of the islands. We feared the worst for them, until we learned that they had missed their flight and were sitting on the runway, bemoaning their ruined vacation when the news broke.
Today, when I visited the hospital, an Israeli woman called me over and started crying when she told me her story. She had been traveling by boat with another 41 Israelis. They had just docked at Ko Phi Phi when the waves began to hit.
The group ran as fast as they could, but could not outrun the rushing water. They were immediately swept up in its path along with debris, trees and cars. This woman was sure her life was over and without time to think, suddenly found herself screaming to others to join her in saying the "Shema" out loud.
With the last ounce of strength in her body, she cried out the words of the most foundational prayer of the Jewish people, our acknowledgment of the Creator of the World and His oneness. And as she finished the verse, she suddenly felt a log come up from under her feet, keeping her head above water so that she could breathe.
Then, as she floated along, she looked upward and saw a rope come down from the sky. The rope had been thrown from her boat, where other survivors had gathered. They pulled her aboard and managed to save 40 of the group. Unfortunately, there are two still unaccounted for.
It is these miracles that give me hope and remind me of my purpose and my mission. There are no words to describe the horror that has happened and certainly no understandable explanations or reasons for its occurrence. But I believe that though we can't make sense of it, this, like everything we experience, is part of a larger picture that we currently don't see.
More importantly, we must use this opportunity to focus on our ability to overcome, to help others and to rebuild. Every living, breathing person who survived this not only has to live his or her life, but must live for those who were not able to survive.
And I keep trying to tell myself, we must remember that just as instantaneously as utter destruction struck, so, too, in a split second, we can be redeemed, we can start anew, we can have complete peace, love and goodness.
I've seen more pain and suffering in the last few days than I've seen in all my 32 years. But I've also been privileged to witness compassion and faith of a magnitude that I never imagined existed. I have watched as people from different cultures, faiths, countries and mentalities join together to help another.
For the Godly soul, hidden deep within, often shines forth precisely when externally there is nothing to depend on. When physicality is destroyed, the only thing left is spirituality, and that is now what is apparent throughout this annihilated area.
So, for now, I continue to help rescue and identify the victims, working along with representatives from throughout the world here to do the same. The Israeli Embassy has asked all hotels in Thailand to request their Israeli guests to call either the Israeli Embassy or one of the Chabad houses so that we can ensure that the people who are safe and sound have called home and are not considered "missing."
This Shabbat we will be hosting many tsunami survivors at our Shabbat tables here in Phuket and hundreds more at the Chabad houses in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui. We are still hoping to find more survivors, to provide the injured with all their needs and to make possible for those who were not so fortunate to be brought to their families for a proper burial.
Thanks to everyone's unbelievable dedication and work, we have made much headway. From an initial list of 2,000 missing Israelis, only 17 remain unaccounted for.
May God bless us to continue to be successful in our work, and may this disaster be the last we know of pain and suffering and the beginning of the true ushering in of goodness and redemption.
Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm is a Chabad emmisary living in Southeast Asia. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org online at www.Jewishthaiand.com.