Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tsunami Stories And Remembrance

aceh+women+survivors
It's exactly three months since the earthquake-tsunami catastrophe struck the Indian Ocean. There has been, during that time, a huge amount of reflection and commentary on almost every conceivable aspect of the disaster. Not unnaturally, perhaps, the focus of most media outlets have moved on – it's the unremitting logic of presentism in the news agenda.

But some websites have done an excellent job in reminding us of the lives of the survivors and of the ongoing struggle for recovery and reconstruction. In the fickle world of news manufacture this is a necessary effort of remembrance.

To its credit the BBC has consistently updated its coverage of post-tsunami stories and I highlight some of the recent ones here. As you'd expect they are a mixture of the hopeful and the disturbing:
  • Everyone was, I think, moved by the generosity of ordinary people in raising huge amounts of money for the tsunami victims. Doubts were aired, however, over the pledges made by rich countries and with good reason. This report says that there is a $4 billion shortfall in promised donations. It's based on a recent Asian Development Bank report on reconstruction which, among other things, highlights the need for coordination mechanisms and means for combating corruption.
  • There is a moving photo essay here on the efforts of Alana McGowan – who lost her sister and nieces when the tsunami hit the Thai island of Phi Phi – to set up a nursery for surviving children, who now live in camps in the mainland town of Krabi.
  • This report links the plans for reconstructing Aceh to the hopeful negotiations between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) though, as it points out, there are signs that the informal truce on the ground is fraying.
  • Less hopefully, the United Nations' refugee agency has announced its withdrawal from Aceh ahead of new restrictions on foreign aid agencies undertaking emergency relief in the region. The Indonesian government is uncomfortable with UNHCR's highlighting of human rights abuses by the military.
  • Most attention has been paid to the physical and material aspects of reconstruction but there are enduring psychological problems affecting mental health. Trauma, stress and guilt are just some of the more obvious signs. Children, in particular, will need long-term counselling and support.
  • A couple of reports here and here highlight the gender impact of the tsunami. There is staggering evidence from an Oxfam report that four times as many women than men may have been killed in some regions. As the report argues: "disasters are disciminatory" and renewed efforts will have to be made to integrate this horrible reality into relief efforts. The fishermen widows of Sri Lanka are simply not coping with the loss of women in their communities.

Remembrance is a social process, while memory, both individual and collective, is its product. Collective remembrance, the process of public recollection of the kind contained in these stories and thousands of others, is the act of those people who gather bits and pieces of the past and join them together for a public – for you and me – who will express, reflect upon and consume that memory. As in all catastrophes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But the individual stories still matter: they are the personal and existential realities of death and loss, of survival and hope, of frailty and strength.

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