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January 07, 2005

A Day At The Krabi Morgue

This morning a woman in my guesthouse mentioned that it was possible to volunteer at the makeshift morgue in town.

I decided to head out there after breakfast but I found myself procrastinating. It is very easy to say "I am going to volunteer at the morgue" but it's quite hard to actually do it. I had seen some pictures of the bodies in the Bangkok Post so I had an idea of the gruesome sights that lay ahead. But I had never been to a morgue before. I have never seen a dead body (I had seen motorcycle accident victims in Mae Sot, but I could not know if they were dead). So I knew this was going to be a harsh day, but I was not going to turn away from my commitment to help.

The morgue is set up inside the high walls of a Buddhist temple. Outside that perimeter there are tables with foreign affairs officials, police, and the military who coordinate the volunteer force. There are also message boards that are covered with pictures of the bodies, and computers to allow people to search the database of deceased. A sign gives step-by-step instructions for people who are searching: find likely candidates by looking at the pictures and going through the database; if you think you have found who you are looking for, you may choose to enter the morgue accompanied by a doctor to identify the body directly. Then you can get a death certificate from the Thai officials and make arrangements to have the body transferred.

I was received very warmly by the Navy Captain. He explained the operation was winding down and that there may not be much for me to do. I sat and chatted with other volunteers and the Thai military for an hour. The stench of rotting flesh, carried to us by the gentle breeze, grew stronger as the sun climbed into the sky and heated Krabi and its dead.

I took it upon myself to go around the picture boards and make sure the prints were well secured. A few had fallen off and were drifting in the wind. Such a piece of litter would not be a pleasant sight for the residents who are trying so hard to get over the tragedy. This task made me spend a lot of time looking at gruesome images, but some part of my brain had thankfully separated the real meaning of the images from the fact that there was paper that was falling on the floor, and I needed to fix that. The emotional stuff was sent to some grey-matter black-hole and I expect it will not resurface until much later.

As I sat again, I wondered how people could actually look at these images with the goal of identifying someone they knew. To me it was incomprehensible that they could go through with it. I figured their brains must have been working so much harder than mine to allow them to function in these times.

Later in the day I was given an actual task: I was to stand in front of the gates of the temple and stop the press from entering. I walked inside the walls of the temple to get specific instructions from a Canadian forensics expert who was apparently the boss. He introduced me to some of his crew (all covered with decomposed flesh) and explained that I should find any one of them if a camera crew asked to enter the morgue. As he talked my gaze was drawn to three bodies that were laying on the pavement, wrapped in plastic.

I guarded the entrance to the temple and questioned anybody who tried to enter with a camera. I didn't have any real customers until a Singaporean photographer showed up. I presented his business card to the Canadian boss who agreed to let him in. He said: "Stay with the photographer. He can take general pictures but nothing up close and personal." I interpreted that as meaning that no picture should be able to reveal the identity of a victim.

At first the photographer wondered why he should listen to an American tourist while he was at the site of a Thai tragedy, but he ended up being fully cooperative. I explained the rules then let him shoot. As I shadowed him, I was spending the most time that I had been inside the morgue walls. The sights were unreal. Body bags were going one way, coffins in the other, all carried by military figures in ER garbs and gas masks. Just a few meters away from me a bag was being unzipped, revealing a grotesquely bloated figure. My brain worked extra hard to send the emotions from the visuals into a black hole, but unfortunately it could do little for the odors that attacked my stomach. I buried my face into my T-shit and closed my eyes.

When I recovered I was approached by a UK doctor who asked me what I was doing inside. I explained I was a volunteer and I had been given the task of escorting the press. "Well I don't think the press should be in here" he said, visibly upset. I claimed I was not the one making that decision, but by then he was walking off, and threw his hand up at the sky in response. Another guy had mentioned he thought the Thais had forbidden all press from entering the morgue. I asked the Canadian boss what the deal was. He explained very slowly, as if I were a baby, that noone should be allowed inside after 4pm. This did not explain why various people were claiming that no press should be allowed at any time, and anyways I wished I had received these instructions sometime before 4:15.

I was frustrated. I told the Singaporean that his time was up and walked him out. As I pondered over the situation, I realized that I could not blame the docs for being impatient and giving me conflicting directions. They had been opening body bags for days in the tropical heat. Still, I wondered who should make the decision of letting photographers inside the morgue. As I sat there I realized the Thai military who were organizing the volunteer effort were gone. Their assignment was over; they were on the road to Bangkok. As if things weren't bad enough, from now on the volunteers would be unsupervised.

I walked back to my guesthouse unconvinced I would return the next day. I had a depressing dinner; the beer partially dissolved the dam that held the emotions back. I fixed the problem in part by bumming a cigarette (a very rare thing), and though I realized the irony of calming my morgue-anguish with a death-stick, I was not in the mood for such thoughts.

Posted by piegu on January 7, 2005 05:02 AM
Category: Thailand

Il y a des personnes qui prétendent que la meilleure façon d'aider les régions à se remettre de ce drame c'est d'aller se faire bronzer sur les plages comme si rien ne s'était passé.

Il faudra bien relancer l'économie un jour.

Mais avant il y a un devoir d'humanité et de solidarité qui passe par un grand nombre de gestes parfois ... dérisoires.

Ça nous fait mieux comprendre la fragilité de la vie humaine dans un univers à l'équilibre fragile.

Merci d'avoir partagé ce moment avec nous.

Posted by: Hubert Simard on January 9, 2005 08:11 AM
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