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Berkeley students Khanthong "K.T." Nuanual, from Thailand; tsunami survivor Lea Kreidie; and Sri Lankan student Tanya Egodage are coping in different ways. (BAP photos)

UC Berkeley Web Feature

The waves receded weeks ago, but Berkeley students still feel pull of tsunami tragedy

– Two months after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept more than 280,000 people to their deaths, America's attention has receded. Newspaper headlines about the recovery and aid efforts in the affected countries have been bumped to the back pages by coverage of North Korea's nuclear program and the president's diplomatic trip to Europe.

But for people in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and Somalia, the cataclysmic events of December 26 might as well have happened yesterday. There, the chaos has yet to settle: bodies remain unidentified; substantial rebuilding has not yet begun. And for UC Berkeley students with ties to the tsunami, getting back to normal is proving difficult.

'You never know when you'll be gone'

Khanthong "K.T." Nuanual, a third-year political science major from Thailand, cannot get certain faces out of his mind. Nuanual was home with his mother in Bangkok for Christmas when he learned that his aunt, uncle, and two cousins had been at a beach resort in Khao Lak, the area in Thailand hit hardest by the tsunami. He and two other aunts immediately left with a driver to look for them.

"We went to the temple first because we were assuming the worst," Nuanual says softly. "There must have been at least 500 dead bodies there. It was hard to look at the faces. Many of them were already decomposing and puffy from the water. They were all cut up and bruised. There were a lot of children." Three hours of looking failed to turn up Nuanual's relatives.

Nor did they find them at the hospital, which was overflowing with bloody, injured tourists. Nuanual ended up staying there for several hours to translate for the doctors and nurses dealing with the (mostly Western) injured. He is haunted by a woman who staggered in to the hospital with her husband, crying inconsolably. She had been hit by something big, like a refrigerator, in the water and had been knocked unconscious. Her two-month-old infant was thrown from her arms and swept away.

"She was so upset, it made me cry too," Nuanual says softly.

Three weeks passed before his relatives' bodies were located. They were finally found in a database that categorized the dead with multiple identifying characteristics. "Our uncle was very neat, and we knew he would have been dressed properly to leave the hotel. So we searched for socks," Nuanual explained. Only one body in the database was found with socks, and a DNA test confirmed the match. One of his cousins was located thanks to a green Casio watch she had been wearing.

"She had just visited me in Berkeley last year, and now they're all gone." Nuanual shakes his head. "It's changed my perspective. Enjoy your life - you never know when you'll be gone." He confesses that at first he had trouble sleeping and still isn't finding much to enjoy at the moment, but that "I am trying to."

Nuanual will fly back to Bangkok for spring break, and stay an extra two weeks in order to attend the traditional Buddhist cremation marking the 100th day of his family's deaths. Having just transferred to Berkeley from Marin College in the fall, he is concerned about missing classes - he started the spring semester late because of helping his family through the tsunami loss. Yet he hasn't asked for special consideration to make up the work. "I want to make everything as usual as possible," he says. "I don't want sympathy."

'How am I still here?'

Lea Kreidie, a senior majoring in political science and mass communications, also feels like the tsunami provided a wake-up call. Kreidie was actually underwater when the tsunami hit, scuba diving off the island of Phi Phi, near Phuket, Thailand. (Read her firsthand account of her experience for the NewsCenter.) An inexperienced diver, she had been afraid of the ocean and had to be coaxed into going on the trip with her friend's family by her mother and boyfriend - a conversation that would play and re-play in their minds in the hours while she was missing.

"That's what saved me - being out there, so far underwater," says Kreidie. The hut in which she was staying, the beach on which she had sunbathed, were obliterated by the wave. But once back on the diving boat, she and her friend and their family had no idea of the scope of what had unfolded. Then, the crew rescued a survivor dog-paddling in the water. A Westerner, his face was pale and his eyes huge; he shook as he talked about losing his friends and seeing bodies.

"All this debris started passing by - pieces of homes, furniture, people's belongings. I saw these little kid's shoes that I keep thinking about," Kreidie recalls. The boat's crew herded the passengers inside the cabin. "I'm really glad about that, because I know they spared me from seeing some terrible things."

By then they knew about the tsunami. They spent several hours at anchor at what had once been the shore, while the captain went looking for enough gasoline to get them to the mainland. Thai military helicopters whirred by, plucking survivors from high ground and picking up wounded. Kreidie's group was huddled together in their bathing suits, not talking.

"Those hours were the scariest of my life. We thought the tsunami wasn't over and we were sitting in the most dangerous spot, but there was nothing we could do about it," she says. Raised a Muslim in Laguna Niguel, California, by Lebanese parents, she prayed as they waited. "I thought about how I wasn't ready to die. I didn't feel fulfilled with my life. I used to go through life just, you know, going through life. I won't say I was oblivious, because it didn't feel like that at the time, but when I look back, I seem oblivious to myself. Life means so much more to me now."

Kreidie's family met her overseas and she came back to the United States on January 11, starting school on time. She says she is doing a lot better emotionally, thanks to support from her friends and family, but that "it's been hard to stay focused, to concentrate on classes. For me it's still difficult to understand, how am I still here?"

'Even $5 goes a long way in Sri Lanka'

Very much aware of how lucky she was, Kreidie is doing what she can to keep the tsunami's victims in the public eye. She was scheduled to speak at a benefit concert that got rained out during Tsunami Relief Week, a series of fund-raising events held February 7-12 by more than 50 Berkeley student groups, including the ASUC, residence halls, the fraternities and sororities, and the co-op houses. The concert will be rescheduled at a future date.

"Already it seems what happened has been completely flushed out of most people's memories," Kreidie says. "I don't want everyone to just forget about it. People there lost so much and they are still suffering, they need a lot of help."

The Tsunami Relief Coalition raised between $5,000 and $7,000 from its candlelight vigil, charity dinner, a prominent donation tent, and wristband sales, according to ASUC senator Igor Tregub. Earmarked for donation to UNICEF, the money is still coming in: Berkeley's Theater Charity Group is staging a showcase of student-written one-act plays, called "Heaven and Hell," whose proceeds will also go to UNICEF's tsunami efforts (February 24-26, 8 p.m., 155 Dwinelle; $5 minimum donation).

Other students are holding their own fund-raising efforts. After spring break, when he returns from Bangkok, Nuanual, who is president of the Thai Students Association, intends to sell buttons whose proceeds he can donate to the ongoing rebuilding efforts in Thailand.

He is also urging people not to cancel vacations they might have planned to his home country. "Thailand depends on tourism and services for its living," he says. "The best thing you can do to help the people there is to just go, so that more people don't lose their jobs."

Want to help?
Organizations collecting online donations for Asian relief efforts:

Tanya Egodage, a third-year Berkeley microbiology major from Orange County, Calif., whose parents are from Sri Lanka, decided to channel the huge outpouring of concern from friends and acquaintances into raising money for Sansadaya, a Sri Lankan organization her family had worked with and felt they could trust. She and her sister have raised $6,000 so far, in donations ranging from $5 to $1,000. "Even $5 goes a long way in Sri Lanka," says Egodage.

They have sent the money in several batches to Sansadaya to help feed, clothe, and house children displaced by the tsunami. Sri Lankan newspapers estimate that more than 1,000 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents.

Egodage's family visits her grandmother in Sri Lanka every two years. Her mother had returned on Dec. 23 from the region later hit by the tsunami. On Christmas night, an uncle called to tell them what had just happened several time zones away. Egodage and her relatives were glued to the television until morning waiting for news reports to confirm his account. In an addition to an uncle and aunt killed by the tsunami, Egodage mourns two lost family friends and all the places, like Yala National Park, that will no longer exist as they were, except in her memories.

"The first thing I wanted to do was go over there and assist in any way possible, because I thought Sri Lankan people who know the language and the culture would be able to help better," says Egodage. Her parents discouraged her, fearing the diseases that would be sure to follow. Instead, the entire family plans to fly back to Sri Lanka to help in the rebuilding. (Kreidie, too, talks of going back to Thailand to do whatever she can this summer after she graduates.) Egodage hopes to take pictures of the progress of the Sansadaya orphanage that she can send to all the friends and friends of friends and acquaintances who donated money to help.

"It's still very chaotic, and it will be for a while," she says. "Rebuilding in Sri Lanka hasn't even begun to start. People are sleeping in tents on their land because they are afraid they will lose it otherwise. They will need our help for a long, long time."