The Tsunami's Toll, A Reporter Remembers One Year Later

(CBS)
It's been almost a year since the world witnessed the horrific tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia. And while attention and relief efforts have seen plenty since then, from Katrina to the earthquake in Pakistan, those who survived the tsunami continue the rebuilding and those who chronicled it take stock – and remember.

CBS Asia correspondent Barry Petersen just returned to Banda Aceh where he filed this report for CBSNews.com. Petersen notes the continuing impact:
"There is no end of sadness here … 90-thousand people in Banda Aceh alone died when the tsunami roared through … but for those who lived, the fact that there was still a functioning city meant there were places to flee."
But he sees progress:
"But there is economic growth … new supermarkets and restaurants … the internet cafes are still here. The newly revitalized economy is, oddly enough, fueled by the very disaster that almost brought Banda Aceh to its knees.

Now the rebuilding is well underway. There are thousands of new jobs in construction, there is work everywhere you look.

That means money is circulating, people are back shopping at the markets.

Do not, by any stretch of the imagination, think the worst is over. Rebuilding will take five or ten more years. But a year later … it can be truly said … things are looking up."
But it was something else Petersen filed that told a bigger story, a diary of his trip back in which he recalls the immediate aftermath and reveals the toll it took on those who covered the disaster. Here's part of the dispatch, you can read it in its entirety here:
"Reporters go to places to tell you how events affected the people in those places. Rarely do we step back and think about how the events affected us.

But the tsunami was different.

Most of us arrived within hours of the event, when even the people on the ground had no real sense of how large this disaster was.

My assignment was Phuket, Thailand, which soon meant traveling north to Khao Lac. Other CBS correspondents were quickly on the scene in Banda Aceh and Sri Lanka.

Khao Lac was the focus of intense tourism development encouraged by the government — new small hotels, and lots of Mom and Pop shops selling t-shirts or diving trips or local ceramics.

That's not what we saw. We saw the immediate aftermath, and that meant we saw a lot bodies. And then it got worse.

You see, the tsunami was especially cruel to children. There is a horrible logic to this: children on the beach at roughly 10 am on a Sunday morning were the least able to run fast and far, maybe the least able to realize the danger.

All over Khao Lac and at the hospitals in Phuket families put up pictures of the missing children. Every now and then, there would be a miracle. Someone would see a picture and match it to a child in a hospital and a family would be reunited.

Mostly, there was nothing. People waited and prayed and…nothing. In many cases, the bodies were never recovered. I understand this because days later, some 40 miles off the coast, we were on a boat that passed through a group of floating bodies.

For the almost three weeks I covered the story, the defining images for me were the faces of smiling children put up by desperate families on walls or bulletin boards outside hospitals or refugee centers. Some were pictures taken in the days before Christmas. A few were even taken when the children had visited local Santas.

Almost all were foreigners, because foreign families were the ones vacationing on the beaches. People from Sweden, Germany, Britain. And a few from the U.S.

I will tell one last story, one piece of information about being a reporter. First you must know that I am also a Dad. My daughters, Julie and Emily, are grown now. Both in their 20s. But of course, as a Dad, I get to remember them as little girls – like the pictures I saw on the walls and bulletin board.

We did a story about the pictures. As we were shooting, a couple from Sweden came up to us and showed us pictures of their missing daughter and three grandchildren taken just days earlier. Here's part of the script from that story. (The words in parenthesis indicate the pictures used.) [SOT stands for sound-on-tape, aka soundbite]

(wall of posters)
Those with hope borrowed a page from 9/11. They made posters of their missing, and sometimes it worked. A face would be recognized, someone would be located. And then…there were the pictures of the missing children.

Max Werkelm is four…his big brother Charlie is all of 6.

(charlotte/143405)
Charlotte Svensson's would have her tenth birthday in just two weeks.

(Tim/slow push to fill screen)
Tim Leger is five. He was almost surely lost because he was in the area hardest hit.

(eklof's showing us pics)
Leo and Camilla Eklof sought us out, as if they just needed to tell someone their story.

(photo of big family group)
Their Christmas gathering of family and friends totaled seventeen people. Fourteen are missing, including all the children.

(hold pics/see three kids)
Among them…Leo's three grandchildren.

(SOT: LEO/5:34)
TEAMU…EMILIA…JULIA.

(SOT: CAMILLA/8:35)
WE ARE SEARCHING FOR 20 HOURS A DAY, SLEEPING ALMOST NOTHING.

(santa picture)
Sometimes a picture brought a smile…a happy moment just a few days ago.

(Camilla and barry and Leo)
A friend tried to comfort Camilla with these words.

(SOT: CAMILLA/1110)
DON'T WORRY. IF THEY ARE DIED, IF THEY DIED…THEY DIED HAPPY BECAUSE THEY WERE SO HAPPY HERE.

(individual shots/Teemu)
Teemu loved playing ice hockey.

(emilia/oldest one)
Emilia, the oldest, had a passion for horseback riding.

(Julia)
Four year old Julia was, said her grandmother, my own little angel.


I wrote all these words. When it came time for me to narrate the story -- I realized I was in trouble. I could not read my own words without crying.

I know that people often think journalists are unfeeling people. Maybe because, like covering the tsunami, we see more than we can absorb.

But we are also Dads (and Moms). And this Dad thought about all those faces, all those children, how happy they must have been playing in the gentle surf, getting Christmas presents, being on an adventure. How could I not think about similar scenes when my daughters were younger and we would take family vacations.

Here's what I did…I read the script over and over, and each time it got a little easier to get through, the words coming out a little more automatically. I probably spent something like half an hour reading the script out loud, basically anesthetizing myself from the words and from my emotions.

When I was finally ready, when I could read with no emotion in my voice, I recorded the narration.

A year later, visiting the same area, there are tourists again, and that means there are children. I stood silently and watched them play on the beach, or at hotel swimming pools.

And I wished for them an ordinary life. A chance to grow up. May I never see their pictures posted on bulletin boards, because I have enough pictures, already, in my mind."

  • Vaughn Ververs

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