JUST over a week ago I was preparing for my military ministry in 2005, when I was surprised by a call from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner’s office in Canberra asking if I could make myself available, as soon as possible, for deployment to Thailand with the AFP team tasked with identifying tsunami casualties and assisting in their repatriation.
In the course of the next 24 hours, I packed, reprogrammed my appointments, flew to Canberra to be briefed by Commissioner Mick Keelty (a committed Catholic and former parishioner of St Peter Chanel’s, The Gap, in Brisbane), was sworn in to the AFP, issued uniforms, got on another plane to Thailand, and arrived in Phuket to witness the death and destruction of the most amazing natural disaster of our lives.
Most AFP people had already deployed with only a few hours’ notice.
In the midst of this, a chance call by Catholic Leader editor Marcus Kuczynski led him to ask me to report back about my first impressions of this situation.
From the outset, I must say that I would wish nothing that I report to cause any further distress to those families and friends still experiencing grief.
Our hearts and prayers are with them. We cannot imagine their situation.
Those of them that were here at the time, or have visited subsequently are left with horrific images that do not need to be re-experienced.
May we assist them in their recovery.
In broad terms, I am pleased to report the following positive developments.
The hundreds of kilometres of coastline that experienced the tsunami are being rapidly cleared of debris and reconstructed.
Enormous credit must go to the Thai Government, agencies and local communities that have marshalled extensive engineering and manpower resources.
Displaced persons have been fed, clothed and sheltered with a speed I have not witnessed in other situations. The possibility of a health crisis has not materialised here, due to this rapid response.
Numerous consular staff from countries with casualties have provided families with information on site.
By far the most impressive effort I have seen has been the rapid and comprehensive action by police teams led largely by the AFP, working on post mortems and the identification of the thousands of bodies that have been and continue to be recovered.
The uninitiated would not comprehend the difficulty and unpleasantness of this task. We can be justifiably proud of our men and women in blue.
I have been amazed by the resilience and resourcefulness of the Thai people.
If you haven’t been here to holiday, you should.
Thais are wonderful people, have a beautiful country, and some spectacular resorts, most of which are well above the tsunami line. But their economy and livelihood is in grave danger if tourists do not return.
Tourism is the main industry in this region and the hotels have emptied. The plea of the people in the marketplace is to ask us to come back.
As I prepared for our Sunday service last week I felt I was in some position to ask and answer the question – What good can come from this tragedy?
Unaware of what local Australian media reporting has occurred, I can offer the following positives, apparent to those of us in Thailand.
The unprecedented outpouring of world compassion, reinforced by financial and practical assistance is greatly appreciated by the Thais.
The survivors have a strong sense that the world is united in support of them. A global family response is apparent.
Throughout devastated areas, specialists and volunteers from many nations are present and working in harmony.
Perhaps this is one dimension of the unity which Jesus so passionately prayed for in John 17 – may they be one!
People have been reminded of the significance of family, and fragility of life.
Our relationships of love are more important than money, status or work. May we invest in them at every opportunity.
The Thai people have expressed their intention to get by without international financial assistance by supporting their own displaced people.
They do not want to distract the world from many other needy causes – in Sudan, Timor and elsewhere, that have not had the media attention focused here.
Indeed we are told 1000 Thai volunteers have left to assist in Aceh.
Hopefully the rest of the world can be jolted permanently to a new consciousness of our ongoing responsibility for needy brothers and sisters no matter what size of calamity they face.
In the readings for last Sunday, we heard that Jesus Christ is Lord of all people (Acts 10:35). May this event help us to reclaim our God-given identity as a worldwide people – a global village.
May our sense of belonging as human beings, responsible to share our surpluses, challenge any self-centred protection of national interests.
May we, as God’s people, continue to bring goodness and light to every darkness.
Deacon Gary Stone is a military chaplain based at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane.
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