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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January, 2005, 18:53 GMT
Volunteers bolster tsunami aid effort
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Phuket

On Christmas Day, Spaniard Nicholas Sera was sunbathing on the eastern coast of Thailand.

Hundreds of volunteers join clear-up operation of Phuket beaches
Hundreds have been joining in the relief and clean-up operation
American Bill Francis was posing as Father Christmas for a group of schoolchildren, and Wzlazwan LeeLavzwatana - a Thai advertising executive - was celebrating the fact that she had finally become a freelance.

But by New Year, all of them were on the Thai island of Phuket, volunteering their time and expertise to help in the relief effort after the huge tsunami devastated the coastline.

"I would have felt very uncomfortable just sitting on the beach doing nothing after such a terrible disaster," says Mr Sera.

"I have a really good feeling about what we're able to do here," adds Ms LeeLavzwatana.

Hundreds of volunteers - both Thais and foreigners - have decided to travel to the affected areas of the country to offer their help.

Some cut short their holidays, others took time off work and still others have quit their jobs completely - but all of them said they could not just get on with their lives, knowing such a disaster had happened.

Some people want to know what hell is like... well, I think I can imagine it from what I've seen here
Keith Lambert, English volunteer

They are now working as translators, labourers, administrators, drivers - in fact, anything that is needed.

And sometimes they can be asked to do some pretty harrowing tasks.

Elizabeth Maria - a Swiss woman who lives in Thailand and normally works as a yoga teacher - spent her first day as a volunteer carrying dead bodies onto tables, so that dentists could pull out their teeth and take DNA samples.

"The bodies looked so bad, you couldn't tell who they were. You couldn't even tell whether it was a Westerner or a Thai," she said.

Keith Lambert, from England, also spends some of his time at morgues. He is constructing a database to catalogue all the bodies found on the beaches around Khao Lak, a resort up the coast from Phuket.

"Some people want to know what hell is like... Well, I think I can imagine it from what I've seen here," Mr Lambert said.

Various motives

The volunteers have different reasons for wanting to help in this often grisly task.

Nicholas Sera was initially motivated to come to Phuket because his friend was one of the many thousands missing in the aftermath of the tsunami.

After several days of fruitless searching, he decided that instead of resuming his holiday, he would volunteer to help the rescue effort.

He says his experience in the army in Bosnia was a good preparation for what he has had to face.

An American student piles up rubbish in Phuket
Tasks for volunteers range from clearing rubbish to carrying corpses
"I have been liaising with families who are going to the temples [which are being used as makeshift morgues] to identify their dead," he said. "It's very traumatic."

He adds his experiences in Thailand were far more horrific than his time in a war zone.

"You just don't expect something like this to happen in such a beautiful place, where people are out partying and having a good time," he says.

"All sorts of people were affected - old, young, rich, poor - no one was spared."

Keith Lambert has a different reason for volunteering.

"I have a two-year-old daughter, and I just kept thinking it could so easily have been her that died. Every one of these victims has a family," he said.

Changing role

As time goes on, the tasks for which voluntary help is needed are gradually changing.

Chris Schuh, one of the first foreigners to offer help after the tsunami, said in the first few days the priority was to recover bodies.

But the emphasis has now shifted to delivering aid and helping with reconstruction work, he says.

Wzlazwan LeeLavzwatana (l) volunteering in a hospital
This is a special time - a chance to do something really good for other people
Wzlazwan LeeLavzwatana, Thai volunteer
While the need was less pressing now than in the first few days, the relief teams could always use volunteers, he adds.

Which is just as well, because they continue to arrive in droves.

On Thursday afternoon, Christian Teutenberg was one of those to offer his services at Phuket's City Hall - where the effort to help the tsunami victims on the island is being co-ordinated.

"I'm here to do whatever I can. I don't really care what," he said.

And it seems there is no end of ways that people can help. A few days ago, a group of Swedish masseurs decided to offer their services to tsunami victims still in hospital.

Hermion Spencer, from Scotland, is in the middle of a round-the-world sailing trip with her husband, and she plans to offer the use of her boat.

Local volunteers

It is not just foreigners who are helping in the relief effort either. Many hundreds of Thais from across the country have come down to the area to offer their services.

Wzlazwan LeeLavzwatana is working as a translator at the Vachira Phuket Hospital, where many of the injured foreigners were taken in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.

"This is a special time - a chance to do something really good for other people," she said.

It is clear that Thailand's west coast has a long way to go before it is back to the way it was, and help will be gratefully received for some time to come.

Chris Schuh has already stayed longer than he originally intended, and Keith Lambert now plans to be in Khao Lak until at least March.

Elizabeth Maria even plans to stay at the risk of jeopardising her business in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

"What I am doing here is just far, far more important," she said - a sentiment which would surely be echoed by many of Thailand's impromptu tsunami volunteers.

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