BAN NAM KHEM, Thailand (Reuters) - Suvadee Sukkasem is still searching for her son who vanished when the Indian Ocean tsunami turned this tropical paradise into a mass grave for thousands of Thais and foreign vacationers nearly five years ago.
Although the sea now frightens her, she refuses to leave her beachside village in southern Thailand, holding out hope for the return of her son, who was four years old when the towering wave crashed ashore with little warning on December 26, 2004.
As the world prepares to mark the fifth anniversary of the tsunami that killed 226,000 people in 13 Asian and African countries, scars have yet to heal even after homes have been rebuilt, tourists have returned and foreign aid has ended.
Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village on Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, lost nearly half its 5,000 people. Today it is a shell of its former self despite an outpouring of aid in one of the largest foreign fund-raising exercises in history.
Its once-thriving center of dense waterfront stores, restaurants and wooden homes is gone, replaced with souvenir shops, a wave-shaped monument and a small building filled with photographs of the tsunami recovery effort.
“So many people here are still looking for their family,” said Suvadee, a slight, 43-year-old woman with an easy smile and weathered hands that clutched worn photographs of her son.
“The village is scared of the sea, but we don’t know where to go. We live in new homes, but it is difficult. I don’t think I could ever leave here knowing my son has never been found.”
She also finds comfort with neighbors who lost family.
When the disaster struck, triggered by an undersea earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, waves washed Suvadee out to sea. She floated for seven hours, holding her one-year-old daughter with one arm and clinging to wood from a broken boat with the other. Fishermen rescued the two eventually.
In Thailand, 8,212 people were killed in the catastrophe or are still missing. The total included around 2,200 foreign tourists, almost all of whom were vacationing on or around the southern island of Phuket, a region that had contributed as much as 40 percent of Thailand’s annual tourism income.
By the start of 2008, tourism had recovered so much local officials confidently predicted it would take just another year to return to pre-tsunami levels, breathing hope into an industry accounting for 6 percent of Thailand’s economy.
But the global financial crisis and political uncertainty in Thailand intervened, pushing down tourist arrivals just as foreign aid for tsunami victims dried up.
Tsunami aid efforts have mostly finished, said Patrick Fuller, Tsunami Communications Coordinator at the Red Cross.
“There are some road projects, longer term projects. But all the housing projects are pretty much wrapped up,” he said.
Local residents say what they need more than the new buildings, roads and other infrastructure is livelihoods.
“Tourism hasn’t come back. There are not enough visitors, so the economy has not recovered,” said Rotjana Phraesrithong, who is in charge of the Baan Tharn Namchai Orphanage, opened in 2006 for 35 children who lost parents in the tsunami.
Twenty of the orphans have yet to find new parents. A charity bike ride in January organized by British-Australian nonprofit Hands Across the Water will raise funds for a new daycare center after a spike in pregnancy by out-of-work teens.
Down the street from the orphanage, 38-year-old Tasanee Sirisook struggles to make a living in a family-run food-stall in a new fishing village built several kilometers from the sea.
“Most people here are not happy,” she said of the rows of government-made houses built on higher ground and painted white. “It’s far from work for most people. And it’s not easy to find a job like before.”
Dozens of small hotels and resorts are up for sale in Thailand’s Phang Nga province north of Phuket, whose forested coastline includes Ban Nam Khem and the serene 19-km (12-mile) Khao Lak beach, two of Thailand’s worst tsunami-hit areas.
“More than 100 of these small hotels and retail tour operators are looking to sell their operations because they can’t obtain loans from banks to keep going,” said Krit Srifa, president of the Phang Nga Tourism Association.
“Many small operators are still in debt after renovations since the tsunami and many just haven’t recovered financially.”
On Khao Lak beach, where the tsunami killed more than 3,000 people, there’s little physical evidence of one of history’s worst natural disasters, aside from occasional “Tsunami Hazard Zone” signs and color-coded evacuation maps.
A symbol of the catastrophe, the Sofitel Magic Lagoon where more than 300 guests and staff died, re-opened last month as the 298-room JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa, though just half its rooms are filled heading into peak season.
A couple of kilometers from the beach, waist-high weeds cover Bang Muang Cemetery where about 370 unidentified bodies of tsunami victims are buried.
The grounds, studded with small concrete headstones marked with case numbers under thickets of weeds and wild shrubs, have not been maintained for at least a year, locals said.
The bodies are buried in metal coffins surrounded by concrete chambers to preserve as much DNA as possible, but their identity cannot be proven to international standards of 90 percent certainty, preventing their return to families, said Police Col. Niti Banthuwong, director of the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification unit.
The unit, once hailed as the world’s biggest forensics investigation, ceased operations earlier this year.
“We still don’t have enough forensic information from these bodies and there is not enough information from relatives to identify these bodies or return them to anyone,” he said.
Their DNA is on file in Bangkok, he added.
In Phuket, one of Asia’s premier resort islands, tourism is down but few blame the tsunami.
“The only time people seem to talk about the tsunami is in December during the anniversary,” said Pattahanant Ketkaew, a 27-year-old manager at Phuket2Go tours near bustling Patong beach.
“Tourism is off, but that’s because of the global economy.”
(Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja and Prapan Chankaew)
Editing by Sugita Katyal