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Tragedy goes on for lost child of tsunami

HIS IS the face we all remember. Filled with fear, puffy-eyed and pale, the haunting image of the boy with straggly fair hair captured the human cost of the tsunami. Stranded and alone in a foreign land, his life had been torn apart. Like thousands of holidaymakers he found himself engulfed in a desperate battle for survival in unimaginable circumstances on Boxing Day morning.

Two days later, when seven-year-old Karl Nilsson clung to his makeshift placard, he clung to hope. As he did so the world started to wake up to the full implications of the tragedy. Millions had been left homeless, without water, power, communications or the infrastructure to face the epidemics that threatened to kill more people than the waves themselves. Only 30m had been pledged when Karl made a desperate appeal to the world to find his family.

Within days, charities recorded donations at unprecedented levels. Celebrities manned phonelines. Aid flights began to reach survivors. But as the world began to offer help, attention moved on from Karl and the thousands like him whose lives would never be the same.

When he was pictured alone and afraid, Karl's parents and younger brothers had already been missing for two days. Found by Marie Guldstrand, a Swedish doctor amid the ruins of a Buddhist temple on the holiday island of Phuket, details of the boy's incredible escape began to emerge. In the moments before the tsunami struck, Karl had been playing in a hotel room with his two younger brothers. His parents were only yards away, but outside. When the waters rushed in the entire family was swept away. By the time the waves subsided Karl mistakenly thought he had been transported to another island. Frightened and alone, he hoped his relatives would soon appear.

They never did. There was to be no happy ending. Like the thousands of tsunami survivors who pinned pictures of their loved ones to notice boards, and registered contact details on websites, Karl's appeal was in vain. Without any family to care for him he returned to Stockholm with Guldstrand who had found him shivering in his underwear two days earlier, with a broken collarbone. He had screamed in agony as cuts on his feet were stitched without anaesthetic.

The extraordinary story that follows, revealed today by Scotland on Sunday, is every bit as tragic. For Karl, who turns eight next month, the agony continues. It is six months today since the tsunami struck. The body of his younger brother, Uilgot, was only returned to Stockholm last Thursday. The three-year-old's remains had just recently been allowed to leave Thailand. "After a few days the police will allow him to be returned to Boden," Peter Nilsson, Karl's great uncle, said. The family will hold a cremation. The thought of the tiny casket that holds his ashes would be enough to make anyone weep but Karl has become used to such ceremonies.

The bodies of his parents, Asa and Tomas, were returned to Sweden in April. They were also cremated. Their arrival had been delayed because of bureaucratic wrangling in Thailand.

But six months after Karl became an orphan the Nilsson family is yet to be reunited, even in death. His five-year-old brother, Ulof, is still missing.

"The body has yet to be found," said Peter Nilsson. "We hope it soon will be and then DNA can be used to identify him. We are prepared to wait until that happens so that we can bury the family together at the cemetery."

That Karl survived at all is remarkable. Finding himself struggling in the water totally disorientated, he somehow managed to struggle to safety. "I was under the water but somehow I could breathe," he told Guldstrand at the time. "I was just closing my eyes and moving with the waves. Then, suddenly the flood ended and I was in another city."

On Karl's return to Sweden he was met by his grandparents, Ingrid and Sixten Johansson. For the past six months he has lived with them in Boden, a small town in the far north of the country. It is not at all surprising that to begin with, the family had little idea how to help a seven-year-old boy come to terms with the death of his parents and brothers.

"He didn't really understand what happened at first and nor did we," said Peter, 54, who works as a police officer in the nearby town of Lulea. "He was very shocked but after about 10 days he was well enough to go back to school. He missed his family a lot. He didn't want to talk about it in the beginning but after a while he started to talk about what had happened during the tsunami."

Slowly, Karl began to open up about the tragedy. "He was together in the house with his two brothers and his mum and dad were outside when the water came," Peter said. "It crashed through the house. From the beginning local people took care of him and then a Swedish family found him."

Since his return on December 30, Karl's relatives have tried to put his life back together.

Peter said: "His grandparents are taking care of him in the best way possible. School is going well for him now. He has people he can talk with and there are teachers who talk with him when he gets upset about what happened. He doesn't do it every day but sometimes he talks about his father and mother and his brothers. When we are playing football he talks about how his mother and father used to play with him."

Somehow, life goes on. The tsunami does not dominate Karl's days. He does not have nightmares. "Children are fantastic," said Peter. "They can cope well with tragedy, much better than adults. I don't know why but they are fantastic at getting on with their lives." Although Karl's grandparents and remaining family members have tried to move on, they have stayed close to Guldstrand and her family. They have visited Boden twice and speak regularly on the phone.

His grandfather has also begun to teach Karl how to play golf. "He is starting to get his green card so that he can play on courses," Peter said. "I don't know if he understands everything that has gone on but hopefully we will be able to do that in the future. We try to explain as best we can what is happening."

As Karl's life is put back together, so, six months on, the countries directly affected by the tsunami are repairing themselves. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and the other areas struck by the waves continue to struggle towards a return to normality. It is proving easier for some than others.

A trip inland from the devastated beaches in Ampara in eastern Sri Lanka not only reveals the beauty of the area but also the progress of recovery. From a stretch of beautiful beach, fringed by coconut trees, a makeshift bridge leads across mangrove and lagoon. After reaching the main road and driving through emerald green rice fields, in the distance, like a backdrop, visitors can see the "high hills" that are the spine of Sri Lanka rising into the mist.

A further six kilometres leads to a dusty plain. Here lies Savalaked transit camp on a barren piece of land between the coast and the hills. Not many people choose to settle here because families want to live beside the fertile rice fields, the fishing of the coastal areas or the tea plantations in the hills.

Savalaked holds 250 families, the ones who have no land, no belongings of any note and no relatives living in the coastal towns to whom they can turn to for help. Although Oxfam is working to provide basic water and sanitation infrastructure in the camp it is obvious that the people living in the tents realise they are being left behind. The men go off and look for casual labour during the day while women and children spend the day looking for shade.

David Crawford, Oxfam's aid coordinator in Sri Lanka, said: "These are the people who didn't have much of a future before the tsunami and who have even less of one six months later. These families are the poorest in Ampara."

Before Boxing Day last year, the coastal towns and villages of Sri Lanka had vibrant communities. Most people had jobs or businesses. They had houses and a network of friends and relatives to support them. There were markets and business associations and basic services. Mixed into this community was a core group of the very poorest families living in cheap rented accommodation, squatters, and seasonal workers moving from job to job.

Crawford said: "It is these people who are left in the camps like Savalaked transit camp. It is much more difficult for them to return because they have nothing to return to."

But there is hope. The nearby community of Sainthamaruthu is being rebuilt. The building blocks are the economy, mosques and schools. "The fishing association members are once again at sea and fishing, having been given boats, engines and nets," said Crawford, who has worked in the area since February.

But the camps must soon close down. He added: "If these people are encouraged to stay in camps in the long term they will become dependent on aid and handouts and the fabric of their culture will come apart."

The generosity of the British public and wider world are what have made such camps possible. Figures from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) show that 400m has been raised from the UK public. 57m has been spent in Indonesia building temporary housing and getting people back into work.

A further 44m and 36m has reached Sri Lanka and India respectively. The remaining money is being spent in Somalia, Thailand and the Maldives.

More than 225,000 people died in the tsunami, according to the latest official estimates, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Governments from the affected countries have confirmed the deaths of 178,953 people. Nearly 50,000 remain missing, presumed dead.

It was images like that of Karl Nilsson that stung the post-tsunami world into action after days of political dithering and delay. Until his picture appeared on the cover of British newspapers only 1m had been pledged by the UK government. The contrast of its apparently meagre response with the public's generosity forced a U-turn.

But more money will be needed in the coming years to aid recovery of the region's wrecked coastline. The DEC estimates that it will spend 152m on post-tsunami aid this year and a further 110m in 2006. The experience of people in camps like Savalaked shows that short-term funding will never be enough.

Meanwhile, across the globe, there are thousands of families like Karl Nilsson's: slowly rebuilding, trying to make sense of a natural cataclysm which changed their lives forever.

Family of Scots victim consoled by charity efforts

THE family of Scots tsunami victim Dominic Stephenson are still struggling to come to terms with the scale of the human tragedy.

Dominic, 27, and his girlfriend Eileen Lee, 24, both from Edinburgh, were on holiday on the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand when the devastating waves struck on Boxing Day.

The couple had recently bought a flat in Leith and were to move there on their return to Scotland.

Dominic, an architect, was only laid to rest three months after the tragedy.

A picture wallet containing Scottish bank notes led to the discovery of his body, but his identity was only confirmed by fingerprints. Eileen's body has never been found.

Dominic's brother Simon, 26, yesterday revealed how charity efforts and links forged with the devastated holiday island had helped the family cope as the six-month anniversary loomed.

Simon, a doctor, said: "While we realise the significance of the date, for us this is not really about any anniversary because we mourn those we loved every day. What happened that day is utterly unimaginable, the scale of destruction and loss of life was awful.

"However, we have been overwhelmed by the support of those around us. A lot of positive things have happened which reflect the lives of Dominic and Eileen."

Dominic was the first Scot confirmed dead in the disaster.

He met Eileen four years ago through mutual friends and was due to complete his final architecture exams after training with Edinburgh firm 3D. He was in touch with his family during the first few days of the holiday and in an e-mail to his brother just hours before the disaster, spoke of how idyllic life was on the island.

Simon said some 12,000 had been raised by friends and family supporting aid projects in the region. Staff and children at the school where their mother, Mary, is a head teacher are also organising efforts to help youngsters on Koh Phi Phi.

He added: "Dominic always thought of himself as a citizen of the world and it's amazing to see this spirit of kinship stretching out."

Meanwhile, more than 30 British police officers are still working on identifying the bodies of tsunami victims.

Detectives drawn from several UK forces, including the Metropolitan Police and West Midlands police, remain in Thailand as part of an unprecedented international effort to identify both Thais and foreigners who died in the devastating Boxing Day waves.

Thailand recently turned to war crimes investigators in Bosnia to help identify around 2,000 bodies still lying in mortuaries six months after the disaster.

International forensics teams from 22 nations, based in Phuket, are sending bone and tissue samples for DNA testing to experts in Sarajevo, thought to be the most experienced in their field.

Foreign Office officials refuse to reveal the number of Scots involved in the disaster, but Scotland on Sunday understands as many as 11 are among the official figures.

More than 70 Britons have been identified by dental or fingerprint records in the months following the tragedy.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: "Although the number of victims who remain unidentified has fallen quite considerably, it is still a hugely complex and difficult operation."

TOM MARTIN

 
 
 

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